Blinded by the Light is the latest film from writer-director Gurinder Chadha, a filmmaker who’s filmography is made up of feel-good movies that also tackle difficult topics like racism, sexism, class and cultural divides. Based on the memoir by journalist Sarfraz Manzoor (who’s also co-written the screenplay here), Blinded by the Light is a ’80s-set tale of a British-Pakistani Muslim teen who unexpectedly finds himself massively into the music of Bruce Springsteen. It’s a cheerful, cheesy coming-of-age story that evokes that earnest films of the era in which it’s set. And similarly to Chadha’s other films, Bend It Like Beckham and Bride & Prejudice, below the toe-tapping and crowd-pleasing surface there’s some appreciably meaty stuff.
Blinded by the Light opens in 1987 in the small town of Luton, which sits about two-hundred miles outside of London. Javed (an engaging Viveik Kalra in his big-screen debut) is a very sensitive guy struggling to fit in at his new school, spending his time with his only friend Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman). You’ll often find him keeping his diary, writing poems and writing songs for Matt’s New Wave band. But all he wants is to “make friends, kiss a girl and get out of this dump.” If only someone had ever put those feelings into words. Of course, Javed can afford to wear his heart on his sleeve, because Malik, his overbearing Pakistani father (Kulvinder Ghir in a heartfelt and hilarious performance) won’t let anything happen to it. He and his seamstress wife (Meera Ganatra) have devoted their entire lives to scraping out a better future for Javed and his sisters. He’s a proud and traditional patriarch who refuses to let his son grow up to be a taxi driver, but he also lives in denial about Javed’s burning desire to become his own man.
Malik’s reasoning to be concerned isn’t completely off-base, as Margaret Thatcher’s austerity measures are wreaking havoc across the working class, making jobs hard to come by. And Javed’s dream of earning a stable career as a writer is almost as unfathomable to his father then as it would to virtually anyone now. That’s not even mentioning the town’s recent uptick in racist intimidation from the skinheads of the National Front and your garden-variety xenophobes they inspire. So it’s easy to appreciate why Malik is concerned with putting his son on “the right path.” It’s nothing you haven’t seen in a handful of other commercially minded stories about the tension between heritage and assimilation, but the sincerity of the performances help make some of the clichés feel as urgent as it does for the people who can’t escape them.
Javed doesn’t know it yet, but he’s about to be given a way out. Unbeknownst to his parents, Javed isn’t studying economics, but English. Within a matter of minutes, Javed has a standard-issue inspirational writing teacher (Haley Atwell), a crush on the most political girl in his class (Nell Williams) and a literal run-in with a Sikh kid named Rhoops (an endearing Aaron Phagura) who gives Javed two Springsteen cassette tapes and promises that they will offer “a direct line to all that’s true in this shitty world.” And one night Javed, despondent over the tense financial situation at home, throws all his poems in the trash outside and pops in one of the Bruce Springsteen cassette tapes. The minute he begins listening to the lyrics of “Dancing in the Dark,” Javed’s life is changed. The sequence plays out in a striking fashion, as the lyrics from the song flash across the screen. And it’s those lyrics that pushes him to go out into a wind storm and collect his discarded poems. All together the sequence is a sublime crystallization of what it feels like to be seen for the first time, and it perfectly captures how Springsteen’s best songs translate the American Dream into a universal language that has the power to speak to everyone’s most basic dreams and frustrations.
Javed doesn’t just become a fan of Bruce’s music, he becomes possessed by it. And Chadha encourages him every step of the way, as her movie transforms into a jukebox musical that only cares about one man’s records. She turns up the corniness so hard and so fast that the film will become a direct challenge for one’s cynicism. Many scenes in the film’s middle patch will deliver a ranging response for people depending on how you can take the cheesy corn of it all. Whether that be the bit where Javed sings “Thunder Road” at his crush in the middle of a crowded market, or when he and Rhoops stand up to some Nazi scum by chanting some Bruce lyrics. But for such a sentimental movie, Blinded by the Light does bring some hard-to-shake moments; particularly a passage where “Jungleland” plays over the violence of an anti-immigrant rally. Overall, seventeen Springsteen tracks are played across this movie, and pretty much every one of them arrives at just the right moment (an argument could probably be made that the movie coasts on the music a little too much). So yeah, it’s a lot, but it cuts through the denim fantasy of Springsteen’s music and finds a seed of truth in every line he ever told.
The movie isn’t perfect though, as it does at times oversimplify some character beats and simply overstuff the movie itself with a bit too many side characters (a couple of them are seemingly just there to push the narrative forward). And elsewhere, the maudlin sentiment might be overdone just a hair. But the film does have much going for it, and brings an interesting look at The American Dream. And honestly, it’s hard not to pity the people who check out of the film by sticking up for Malik’s own aspirations. Sure he may be going a little too oppressive with his parenting choices, but there’s some history that hardens them. The American Dream is nice and all, but it isn’t real; one simple listen to “Born in the U.S.A.” will do enough to dissipate that idea for anyone. Blinded by the Light takes a look into the most electrifying songbook any citizen of this country has ever written to find a truth that doesn’t belong to Asbury Park or Luton or in Pakistan or really anywhere else in this unforgiving world. In the end, it doesn’t matter where you’re from, only that you find the strength that makes you, you and to believe in your own promised land. Full of utterly pure joyousness, Blinded by the Light earnestly brings lovable characters to a story about the importance of forging your own identity.