Blinded by the Light, review: Gurinder Chadha’s ode to Springsteen is utterly joyous

The film offers not only a reminder of Springsteen’s lyrical genius, but of how he’s always served as a beacon for the disenfranchised

Clarisse Loughrey
Wednesday 14 August 2019 14:41
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Blinded By The Light - Trailer

Dir: Gurinder Chadha. Starring: Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Meera Ganatra, Aaron Phagura, Dean-Charles Chapman, and Hayley Atwell. 12A cert, 135 mins

Music can make the other side of the ocean feel like it’s only a hop, skip, and a jump away. It’s the reason Bruce Springsteen, the blue-collar New Jersey poet who watched the American dream crumble around him, can speak directly to a British-Pakistani teenager, who is just trying to survive the cruelties of Thatcher’s Britain. That teenager was journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, who in 2007, published Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock’n’ Roll. It documented his childhood in Luton as influenced by his fixation on The Boss, who he’s seen in concert more than 150 times. Manzoor has now joined forces with filmmaker Gurinder Chadha, alongside screenwriter Paul Mayeda Berges, to write Blinded by the Light, which Chadha also directed.

The film transfers many of Manzoor’s experiences onto the fictional Javed (Viveik Kalra), a shy, retiring kid living in Luton in 1987. He harbours ambitions to become a poet, despite his father Malik’s (Kulvinder Ghir) wishes that he become either a doctor or lawyer (the fact he has two choices of career path is, according to Malik, a sign that he’s a generous parent). Not that his best friend, Matt (Dean-Charles Chaplin) understands him much better. He can’t see why Javed would want to write songs about the Cold War and Reaganomics, when all that’s really important is hot girls, synths, and extra firm hold hairspray. What finally punctures Javed’s sense of loneliness are the two Springsteen cassette tapes handed to him by his classmate Roops (Aaron Phagura), who tells him: “Bruce is the direct line to all that is true in this s****y world.”

Blinded by the Light strikes right to the heart of why Springsteen’s work has had such an impact on culture, in stark contrast to this summer’s other music-themed crowd-pleaser, Yesterday, which barely communicated why a world without the Beatles would be any different at all.

This is a far more soul-stirring, uplifting film. It’s utterly joyous, too. As Javed slips his headphones on and hears “The Promised Land” for the very first time, we watch his expressions work through a moment of total epiphany. It’s as if the walls built up around his small, stifling world have come crashing down in one instant. Chadha tries to reinforce the meaning of Springsteen’s lyrics by having key phrases fly across the screen, but it’s a totally unnecessary – and, frankly, quite an awkward stylistic choice. All we need from the scene is already playing out across Javed’s face.

Kalra, who makes his feature debut here, energises the film. He never lets Javed’s journey of musical discovery feel anything other than pure and uncynical, giving his all to the film’s semi-musical sequences. When he sings and dances along to “Thunder Road” in an attempt to woo his political activist crush (Nell Williams), the sense of joy is infectious. There’s a generosity when it comes to the film’s other characters, too. Malik isn’t a one-note depiction of a disapproving parent, since Chadha ensures that we spend time with him as he’s hunched over stacks of unpaid bills, calculator in hand, trying desperately to keep his family afloat. He’s only so controlling of his children’s futures because it’s the only way to ensure they can thrive.

It’d be easy to dismiss Blinded by the Light as overblown and saccharine. Some will inevitably be put off by its sincerity and its familiar message of the unifying power of music. But Chadra, as with many of her other films, including 2002’s Bend it Like Beckham, uses the language of comfort food cinema to explore the weighty issues of race and identity. Blinded by the Light is a film that’s not only aware of its context, but is driven by it. Javed’s isolation isn’t just because he’s a little on the socially awkward side, it’s also because he’s having to deal with life as a second-generation immigrant in 1980s Britain. The National Front skinheads patrol his neighbourhood, looking to terrorise anyone who isn’t white, and local children target Pakistani homes by urinating through their mail boxes, forcing one family to cover their floor with plastic. Add to that the mass unemployment caused by Thatcher’s austerity measures and it starts to make sense why Javed would connect so deeply to the man who sings: “This town rips the bones from your back ... We gotta get out while we’re young”. Blinded by the Light offers not only a reminder of Springsteen’s lyrical genius, but of how he’s always served as a beacon for the disenfranchised, wherever they may be.

Blinded by the Light is released in UK cinemas on 9 August

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