Great Britain in the late 1980s. A country in the grip of economic chaos, racial tensions, and political unrest. And a time fashion clearly forgot. It’s a setting and era cinema has covered extensively over the years. With an inviting narrative and a soundtrack filled with 80s pop and rock wonders, Blinded by the Light is a dizzying mix of schmaltzy clichés, glorious music, and predictable scenarios, in a film full of the greatest intentions.
Standing as both a touching coming-of-age story and a glitzy jukebox musical, writer/director Gurinder Chadha delivers a lively crowd-pleaser that’s a charming ode to teenage dreams and a loving tribute to The Boss. While the occasional moment of daring brilliance shines through, the film is ultimately a relatively safe piece of cinema, saved by its effortlessly entertaining and downright joyous qualities and the magic that is the music of Bruce Springsteen.
Based on the 2007 memoir Greetings from Bury Park by BBC journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, Blinded by the Light introduces us to Javed (an endearing debut from Viviek Kalra), a British 16-year-old born to Pakistani immigrants, living in the sleepy London town of Luton in the late 80s. With desperate dreams of shunning familial expectations of a career in law or medicine, and instead become a writer (oh, the shame!), Javed has faithfully kept a series of journals over the years, filled with his thoughts, poetry, and song lyrics.
A sweet and sensitive soul, Javed is a loner at college, despite the earnest attempts of his teacher Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell) to break him out of his shell, as he quietly pines for the days when he can “make friends, kiss a girl, and get out of this dump.” Unwelcome in his neighbourhood, thanks to the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.K., and crippled by a sense of obligation to financially support his unemployed stern father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) and caring mother, Noor (Meera Ganatra), Javed feels entirely trapped by his environment. Enter The Boss to save the day.
Javed’s life is turned upside down after a chance encounter with rebellious classmate Roops (a scene-stealing Aaron Phagura), who introduces his newfound friend to the thumping music of Bruce Springsteen. As the lyrics of Springsteen’s “The Promised Land” float in and around Javed’s head, The Boss’ words prove to be exactly the blissful escapism and uplifting inspiration this wannabe radical needs. Suddenly, Javed is wearing denim jeans and a sleeveless flannel, chasing the girl (Nell Williams) of his dreams, and breaking free of his familial shackles.
To capture the power and impact of Springsteen’s lyrics, Chadha often has his words literally dance onto the screen, as the subtitled lyrics form an integral part of her overall visual aesthetic. With his husky voice and occasionally mumbled elocution, it can be hard to fully appreciate the genius wordsmith that was (and still is) Bruce Springsteen. By delivering his lyrics in such a literal fashion, Chadha demands her audience pay attention to the raw emotion of his music, particularly those outside his adoring fanbase.
If you find yourself within the “Bruuuuce” fandom, Blinded by the Light will likely work on an entirely different level, as it lovingly glorifies the immense legacy of this legendary musician. If this is your first dalliance with his catalogue of hits, the film still works remarkably well. The power of Springsteen’s music is on deft display here. The raw emotion of his lyrics provides Javed with the energy and inspiration to take control of his life and to stop being the passive passenger to an unwanted destiny, unfairly pre-chosen by his culture and heritage. Springsteen’s words become Javed’s new religion, and if that doesn’t sell you on the immense influence music can have on an impressionable teenager, nothing will.
A pseudo movie musical at heart, Blinded by the Light is often incredibly silly and syrupy corny, with numerous musical sequences playing heavily on ridiculous but engaging farce. A local flea-market provides the setting for a gushing love serenade of “Thunder Road,” which is decidedly cringy, yet still gorgeously sweet. At one point, Javed and Roos hijack the college’s radio station to blast “Born to Run” over the school’s speakers, creating a flurry of dancing and singing throughout the halls before bursting out all across Luton. It’s the film’s highpoint of ridiculousness, but the entire sequence is so insanely energetic, you can’t help but adore it. There are 17 of Springsteen’s tracks dotted throughout the film, and Chadha places each one with deft narrative purpose and intent.
In an endearing debut performance, Kalra is an absolute delight and a real find. His reaction to hearing Springsteen’s music for the very first time is a treat, as his wildly expressive face captures the overwhelming sense of hearing a piece of music that seemingly speaks directly to your soul. It’s a convincing performance that embraces the silliness of the film’s concept and sells every ludicrous moment. Javed’s complicated conflict between family obligation and daring independence gift Kalra with a layered character that he runs with entirely. He seems to be having the time of his life in this role, and you’ll likely be taken right along with him.
The film doesn’t quite nail Javed’s cultural complications entirely effectively, with a naive, rose-coloured view on the life of a young Muslim that’s a little too simplistic to feel entirely genuine. The chance to properly explore his father’s motivations and character flaws are only lightly touched upon, leaving Ghir to deliver a patriarch that’s rather one-dimensional for the majority of the film. Malik is a character who provides little more than a roadblock to Javed’s future plans, even if there is a concerted effort to offer some semblance of a character arc by the film’s conclusion.
The subplot regarding the rise of the neo-Nazi group National Front feels somewhat unnecessarily tacked on and reaching for an angle of modern relevancy that doesn’t hit as hard as it should. There are obvious parallels with the current state of the U.K. to be drawn here, but the film refuses to truly explore them. Overall, Chadra’s narrative is rather predictable, with a series of complications you can see a mile off. Such tropes are often unavoidable in the coming-of-age genre, but the film rarely defies expectation, choosing to consistently play it safe instead.
When the end result is so deliciously delightful, it’s easy to overlook such quibbles and just enjoy the giddy ride Chadha is taking you on. She has lovingly crafted a world where anything is possible. At a time with so much uncertainty in the world, it’s a dose of joyful positivity we could all do with right now. Blinded by the Light is unashamedly sweet and a terrific crowd-pleaser that could well prove to be a sleeper box office smash.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE).
Blinded by the Light plays as part of the Sydney Film Festival and will arrive in Australian cinemas August 22. For more information and tickets, head HERE.