Blinded By the Light is a brand-new film from director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham), and was written by Chadha, Paul Mayeda Berges, and Sarfraz Manzoor. It was based on a true story and stars Viveik Kalra as Javed, a Pakistani teenager whose family has been moved to England by his father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) in search of a better life during the Thatcher era of Britain in 1987. But soon that life gets much, much harder after Javed’s father is laid off from his job due to downsizing by the company, and Javed, already having trouble in school and girls, as well as now needing to search for a job to provide for his family (which will challenge his dream of being a writer), just can’t take it anymore. One day, a fellow schoolmate named Roops lends Javed a couple of Bruce Springsteen cassettes for him to listen to whenever he’s feeling distressed. Javed is hesitant at first; what could Bruce Springsteen, an outdated American musician, understand about the world of a Pakistani teenager in England? After listening to the tapes, however, Javed comes to realize that there’s much more to Springsteen’s music than he at first thought, and its universality sends him on a wild ride. Through the power of Bruce’s lyrics, Javed finds a way to navigate the world around him, understand his family’s struggle, and remember that tramps like us, baby, we were born to run.
Musical movies seem to be on a bit of a kick in 2019; after the sadly average quality of Bohemian Rhapsody somehow managed to score Oscar wins in a few categories (including Best Editing for reasons I will never understand), the deluge of movies about and inspired by the music of legendary performers that the cinematic calendar was staring down the barrel of seemed all but destined to makes moviegoers tired of the whole affair faster than anyone could say “superhero fatigue.” And yet, although there was the disappointingly average Yesterday among the lot, movies such as the critically-revered Wild Rose, as well as the exceptional musical fantasy Rocketman, lit up the summer with fun, insightful stories featuring brilliant performances and wonderful soundtracks that respected the artists even as much as it challenged the characters channeling them and their work. This makes Blinded By the Light the fourth musically-driven film to be released in 2019 alone, and while I won’t say the genre is experiencing a full-on renaissance just yet (it’ll take a few years of this before that can be said), that also makes it the third of them to come out swinging for the fences and damn-near hitting a grand slam home run.
Blinded By the Light is a great movie, but while may not be immediately thought of as a great film in its own right (even I thought it was mostly just really good upon leaving my screening), it’s immediately clear from the opening minutes of the film just how much underlying thematic power the movie is going to have. Movies about Pakistani families having to adjust to life in foreign countries while one of them rejects their own traditions aren’t exactly brand new (The Bick Sick comes to mind), but the way this film approaches that angle of life through Javed’s eyes and Bruce’s music is a refreshing change of pace for both musical films and movies belonging to the aforementioned category. It gives the filmmakers a chance to show the audience how moving and effective great music can be, how it can cross cultural boundaries to inspire, provoke, heal, and comfort. There are multiple sequences where the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen appear on the screen surrounding Javed, as if all-encompassing his person to speak to his feelings in an intimate, personal way, and given Viveik Kalra’s exceptional leading performance, the audience can see this intimacy on his face.
This, of course, all comes from the passion that both the real Javed (who helped work on the movie) and director Gurinder Chadha feel for Bruce Springsteen’s music, which is channeled into the filmmaking, the writing, the characters, the performances, and pretty much any other facet of the film. Much of the movie succeeds on that passion alone, as it’s always fun and refreshing to see someone so passionate about a particular thing they just have to tell a story about it. You can tell through every edit, costume design, and musical number (not like the Broadway type, like the soundtrack type) that the makers of the film respect and understand Springsteen’s music perhaps better than anyone who’s ever tried to make a movie about it, and their joy at getting to show off their efforts to the world are seeped into every moment. (One of these musical sequences was so invigorating, it made a lady about two rows in front of me get up and start dancing on the theater stairs). I can’t say that you’ll definitely become a Springsteen fan after this like I would with Elton John and Rocketman, but this is unquestionably the best example of why Springsteen is aptly dubbed “The Boss” by those who make up his fanbase. But if you think that’s where the praise ends for this flick, think again.
One of the key things musical movies, and indeed musicals, have to get right is being about more than just the gimmick that’s getting people into their seats; why should any of us stay to watch a movie that’s not really about anything? Blinded By the Light takes a little bit to get there, which makes it not as great of a movie as it could have been, but it’s only a minor hiccup on an otherwise unforgettable, joyous ride. This isn’t so much a movie about the music of Bruce Springsteen as it a coming-of-age tale about Javed learning to realize that his world is so much bigger than just him and what he wants. Springsteen’s lyrics speak to him, yes, but much of the time he also ends up missing some key lessons those lyrics are trying to teach him because his internalization of his own struggles and focus on how unfair life is for him distract him from seeing how much he ends up neglecting everyone around him; Bruce often sings about being your own person, making your own way, and working hard to get where you want to go, but taking these themes and only using them for selfish purposes is a slippery slope to travel down, and Javed isn’t exactly equipped with the right boots to walk that slope.
Throughout the film, we see Javed’s journey with Bruce’s music make him more confident and able to stand up for himself against his father who clings to the traditions of Pakistani culture perhaps a little too tightly, but we also see his selfishness, his arrogance, and his neglect of his friends the more he internalizes his struggle, treating himself as if he’s the only one dealing with real-world problems. At one point, through a plot progression I won’t spoil here, Javed is unaccounted for due to selfish reasons when a Neo-Nazi rally comes through town during the family’s preparation for a wedding, and so he’s unable to do anything to help them. All these conflicts, as well as Javed’s behavior, come to a head during the third act of the film when he’s finally confronted with what a selfish jerk he’s been to people. It’s supposedly been all under the guise of having been inspired by Bruce to be his own man, when really he’s just not been a very good person; these conflicts help drive the undercurrent of the movie’s themes, and the emotional pay-off to the brewing conflicts hits you like a freight train during the movie’s closing minutes.
As far as flaws are concerned, there are a few strange edits where scenes seem to be in the middle and then the movie just cuts to the next scene without ever establishing the previous one was finished; it only happens twice in the film, so it can be forgiven in the grand scheme of things, but it is a bit jarring on first watch. In addition to this, while the lyrical sequences, as well as the musical drive of the film, are both insanely creative on the filmmakers’ part, I do wish there had been just a little bit less of those elements in order to make room for deeper character development, especially between Javed and his father, who have some of the best on-screen interactions of the entire proceeding when they’re allowed to play out. That’s about it, though, and that’s not bad for a movie with so much to live up to given the ubiquity of similar films.
In the end, Blinded By the Light may not be the best music movie this year (for me, it’s still Rocketman), but it is far and away the best example of why these sort of movies are everywhere right now. Certain music, when done with care and passion, can touch everyone who listens to it, crossing cultures, knocking down walls, and traversing boundaries as only true art can do. The performances are great, the story is wonderful, the passion is bigger and bolder than any screen this movie can fit on, and it’s all but guaranteed to leave you dancing in the dark.
I’m giving “Blinded By the Light” an 8.9/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.