Powered by Chadha's energetic direction, Blinded by the Light overcomes its formulaic narrative to deliver an infectiously endearing experience.
It's easy to compare Blinded by the Light - a film adaptation of journalist Sarfraz Manzoor's memoir, Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N' Roll - to this year's Yesterday. After all, they're both movies anchored by British Asian protagonists that express an adoration for the songs of 20th century pop music superstars (and white singer-songwriters, at that). In truth, Blinded by the Light is a continuation of Bend It Like Beckham and Bride and Prejudice director Gurinder Chadha's ongoing exploration of the struggles of young English-Asians and children of immigrants as they attempt to lead their own lives while also satisfying their family's expectations for them. Powered by Chadha's energetic direction, Blinded by the Light overcomes its formulaic narrative to deliver an infectiously endearing experience.
Viveik Kalra stars in Blinded by the Light as Javed, a British-Pakistani Muslim teenager whose passion for poetry and writing in general offers him a reprieve from the harsh realities of life in his hometown of Luton, England circa 1987. It also provides him with a break from his father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), a strict traditionalist who constantly leans on him to keep his head down, focus on his studies, and pursue a practical career. However, thanks to a chance encounter with a Bruce Springsteen fanboy named Roops (Aaron Phagura), Javed starts listening to The Boss' songs and immediately connects to his music, especially his themes about the working-class and yearning for a better life. In doing so, Javed not only finds the courage to begin taking real risks and speaking up for himself, but eventually comes to discover his own voice, distinct from everyone else's.
Chadha's Blinded by the Light script - which she wrote with Manzoor and Paul Mayeda Berges (her husband/writing partner) - refashions its source material as a pretty by the numbers coming of age story about a teenager on the cusp of adulthood who, because of their heritage, finds themselves stuck between two worlds. It's her execution of that story, however, that elevates the film into something that's not only memorable, but otherwise sensitive and thoughtful. Blinded by the Light expresses real empathy for the plights of Javed and his family, from its portrayal of the frequent xenophobia and threats they face from white supremacists in Margaret Thatcher's Britain (something that makes the movie all the more timely) to the economic hardships they must overcome as members of the working-class. In doing so, the film makes it all the more clear why Springsteen's music speaks to Javed the way it does, and even provides some fresh insight into The Boss' older, classic work.
Rest assured, though, Blinded by the Light is far from a poe-faced reflection on Javed and his family's lives. On the contrary, it's something of a quasi-jukebox musical where Javed frequently leads the people around him through rousing renditions of Springsteen's songs. Chadha and her DP Ben Smithard (Goodbye Christopher Robin) paint the proceedings in increasingly saturated colors in other to further energize these sequences, whether they're unfolding on the streets of Luton or the interiors of the city's shopping centers (which are meticulously redecorated here to better resemble their - somewhat garish, but authentic - appearance from the late '80s). They also make room for quieter, yet similarly impressionist scenes where Javed is listening to The Boss' music alone and the lyrics that resonate with him the most materialize on-screen, as though conjured by his own subconscious.
Javed's relationship with his father serves as Blinded by the Light's emotional core. The film starts off with the pair seeing one another as mere stereotypes (the clueless son and regressive father, respectively), before gradually coming to recognize the truth about the other and the similarities between their lived experiences. Again, it's a predictable story arc, but it resonates here thanks to Kalra and Ghir, who are perfectly cast as their onscreen counterparts. Blinded by the Light further takes some time to flesh out Javed's relationships with the other people in his life, from his shared fanboyism with Roops to his romance with his politically-active classmate Eliza (Nell Williams) and his connection to his childhood friend and musician Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman). The movie's characters aren't all equally developed, but these subplots ring true thanks to the charismatic performances from the film's ensemble.
While it may not be a mold-breaker for movies about children of immigrants who're trying to find their identity in the modern world, Blinded by the Light is a relevant and enjoyable addition to that tradition that's buoyed by its charming, toe-tapping use of Springsteen's music as a storytelling device. It not only lives up to the hype it's been generating since its unveiling at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, but also makes for a welcome mid-August gem that's worth checking out on the big screen (if possible), even as the current summer movie season winds down. And rest assured, The Boss' longtime fans - and perhaps even the newly-converted - will want to re-listen to his tunes as soon as it's over.
Blinded by the Light is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 117 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for thematic material and language including some ethnic slurs.
- Blinded by the Light (2019) release date: Aug 16, 2019