Sometimes you find salvation in the unlikeliest of places. For Blinded by the Light’s Javed (Viveik Kalra), a British-Pakistani boy growing up in ‘80s Luton, it comes in the form of denim-clad all-American rocker Bruce Springsteen. A first generation immigrant, Javed is caught between the desire of his strict father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) to become a doctor or lawyer, and his own yearning dream to express himself through words and lyrics. All of this plays out against the backdrop of rising unemployment, the encroaching National Front, and Thatcherism.
Wrestling with his cultural identity, Javed finds clarity after his schoolmate Roops (Aaron Phagura) lends him a pair of Springsteen cassettes–the Boss, Roops says, is “a direct line to all that’s true in this shitty world.” Late one night, Javed slides Born in the USA into his Walkman and is electrified by the lyrics to “Dancing in the Dark.” Immediately he’s hooked. Springsteen’s songs of working class strife and escaping his home town, all energetic guitars and epic saxophone solos, sound nothing like the era’s synth-heavy hits from Pet Shop Boys or A-ha, but they are exactly what Javed has been searching for. He finds parallels between Springsteen’s struggles and his own–finally there’s someone else who feels exactly like he does, even if he is a white rock star from New Jersey.
Inspired by Springsteen’s music, Javed soon begins to find his voice. He’s penning poetry with coaxing from Hayley Atwell’s English teacher Ms. Clay, writing songs for his friend Matt’s new romantic band, and finds the courage to ask out classmate Eliza (Nell Williams). Throughout his journey, director Gurinder Chadha supercharges the story with classic Springsteen songs; “Born to Run,” “Backstreets,” and “Jungleland” are all present, while Boss aficionados will appreciate rarities like “Because The Night” (the big hit he penned for Patti Smith) and rejected Harry Potter song “I’ll Stand By You.”
Blinded by the Light doesn’t play by any hard and fast musical rules. At times Javed’s Walkman is the source with lyrics swirling up on screen to mirror his state of mind. At other points, characters break into song and escape into fantasy, like in a “Thunder Road” backed serenade that makes fine use of Rob Brydon. There are some fist-pumpingly brilliant sequences too. Like when Javed and Roops scream “Badlands” into the faces of skinhead bullies and a rendition of “Born to Run” that sweeps through school corridors and onto the streets of Luton.
The performances across the board are fantastic too. Kalra anchors the film superbly, balancing teen angst, wide-eyed optimism, and a rebellious streak that puts him on a collision course with his father. It’s the latter relationship–as it did in Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir, Greetings From Bury Park, on which the film is based–that lends Blinded by the Light its emotional weight.
Anyone who’s seen Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham will recognize the dramatic twists and turns offered here. It switches in one idolized celebrity for another, but thanks to the soundtrack of blistering Springsteen tunes, the connection between protagonist and hero is more keenly felt. Javed’s love of Springsteen initially feels like something to push him further away from his family, but as the story develops, he realizes music is the catalyst to build bridges and not walls. This overarching message is one that feels more relevant now than ever. Charming and full of laughs and warmheartedness, Blinded by the Light is an absolute joy from start to finish.
The Boss would approve.
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