Blinded by the Light is such a sweet-natured earnest movie about music as a tool for personal salvation I worry modern audiences might look at it with suspicion and sneer. Granted audiences love Bohemian Rhapsody so who knows? All I know is by the end of Gurinder Chadha’s joyous ode to Bruce Springsteen I found myself an ugly, sobbing, heaving mess.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess my own obsession with Bruce Springsteen. Much like Javed (Viveik Kalra), I was a twenty-something living at home while I went to community college when I discovered Springsteen, and indeed it seems music in general. However, I’m also not Pakistani nor did I grow up in Luton, England. I’m not saying it’s like I’m looking in a mirror; I’m just saying I understand his bursting at the seems adulation.
Chadha’s Blinded by the Light is more than just an ode to the infamous poet from Asbury Park. It’s a thriving, full-blooded celebration of a working-class family of immigrants trying their hardest to make ends meet without losing themselves along the way. She intertwines scenes where Javed breaks out into song and dance as he croons Springsteen’s lyrics with muted scenes of familial tension.
It’s 1987 and Margret Thatcher is cutting the workforce and government spending. Javed’s father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) has been laid off after 16 years. The script by Chadha, Paul Mayeda Berges, and Sarfraz Manzoor goes out of its way to give us a family filled with people Springsteen usually sings about.
Based on Manzoor’s own book about his youth, Greetings From Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock n’ Roll, the movie feels like a confessional. You wouldn’t think that in the 21st century a movie striving to show that the working-class poor in Springsteen’s songs could be the Kahns would be so powerful but here we are. It’s not a subtle point in a movie that is sometimes clumsy and blunt, but never insincere.
Based on Manzoor’s own life, Blinded by the Light is a movie so enmeshed in its main character’s own psyche that you either go with him when he starts quoting Springsteen lyrics as a response to everything or you don’t. There will be those who will roll their eyes. These people will be ignoring how easily it is to fall in love with a musician at that age and how quickly everything they say becomes gospel.
Blinded by the Light is the type of movie where the poor, downtrodden hero gets the girl and gets into a fight with his father who inevitably warns him “If you go out that door then don’t ever come back!”. But hey, his English teacher, Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell), thinks he shows promise as a writer.
The movie has the audacity to reach into its bag of hack cliches and pull out a subplot of which our hero enters an essay contest where the prize is a trip to Monmouth College in Asbury, New Jersey. What are the odds he wins the essay contest? Any movie which has an essay writing contest must also have the obligatory scene where he reads his essay out loud in front of the school only to see his family in the back and force him to instead pour his heart out about love, family, and Springsteen.
I cried my everloving eyes out.
Kalra’s Javed is an earnest wayward dreamer with hopes of one day leaving his small town. His Javed is shy and awkward and played by Kalra, flat out adorable. He has an open face which shows every hint of turgid emotion as he struggles to try and process it all.
Then he meets Roops (Aaron Phagura), a Sikh, and Springsteen acolyte. Roops loans Javed Born in the USA and The River and from then on it’s nothing but New Jersey poetry. Blinded by the Light doesn’t traverse Springsteen’s entire discography. You’ll find no songs from Nebraska, for example, and while The River is a monumental album only a few songs are used. (I’m still flummoxed by Chadha’s refusal to use “Cadillac Ranch”, a song which never fails to have me twirling about despite my utter lack of knowledge or love for cars.)
But that’s all beside the point. Springsteen’s discography isn’t the point. Javed’s love and need to be understood through his music is Chadha’s thrust. Times are hard and his mother Noor (Meera Ganatra) is having to take up extra sewing. Malik wants him to find work, but Javed wants to write. The problem is his writing won’t pay the bills. He finds refuge in the Boss’ words, salvation in the E Street shuffle.
For all the joy Chadha infuses her film with, it’s the serious moments which pack a potent wallop. The racism in Blinded by the Light hits like a brick through a window. Chadha frames these moments not as dramatic moments, but as everyday occurrences because they are.
Javed goes with his father to visit another Pakistani family in the neighborhood. While they are talking some pre-teen boys open the mail slot in the door and pee inside their house while taunting them. Javed looks on in horror as his father’s friend tries to downplay it, “It’s alright. That’s why we have the plastic laid down.”
Malik is not some one-dimensional cliche either. In contrast to Kalra’s open book of emotions, Ghir is a rumbling cloud of gloom and barely restrained gloom. He is a man who has been told after giving sixteen years of his life to a factory, he’s no longer needed. His eldest daughter is getting married, the bills are piling up, and now Javed is talking about writing for a living.
Malik’s face is a stone tablet etched with lines of worries and years of failed ambitions and dreams. Sitting in his kitchen, Noor coloring the gray in his hair, he breaks down crying. The Kahns are precisely the people Springsteen sings about. The forgotten people who spend their lives toiling away, praying for hope and more often than not only getting broken promises.
Malik and Javed get into an argument once it’s revealed Javed has won an essay contest. Malik doesn’t want him going to America. “Everything that is bad here, is worse in America!” Javed doesn’t think so. “No. Everything that’s good here is better in America.”
At one point Javed says, “In America, they don’t care where you come from.” Sadly it is a line so wildly untrue and naive it got a roaring laugh in my theater. But the line isn’t the point. It’s Javed basic belief in something better.
Throughout Blinded by the Light characters will burst into song, not unlike a musical. While at the market Javed sees a girl he likes, Eliza (Nell Williams). Listening to Springsteen on his headphones, he begins to serenade her with “Thunder Road”. The crowd begins to sing along, people dance, not in a choreographed clean way. But in a mass of joyous messy movement because the rhythm moves you.
Some might think the movie corny. Or too on the nose. Those who do so will miss one of the best scenes of ecstatic joy. Javed, Eliza, and Roops break into the school radio station and put on “Born to Run“. What follows is an expression of pure simple joy. The joy of freedom, the joy of life, the joy of friendship, love, family, and anything else.
At one point, Malik tells his son. “Go. Be a writer. Just don’t forget us.” Subtlety is not the movie’s strong point, which is okay, sometimes subtly can be overrated. The bluntness works, the line as uttered by Ghir manages to bring a tear to my eye. Because in his voice you can hear the fear not of being forgotten, but of losing his son; of having his son forget not just him but who they are as a people as well.
Chadha somehow manages to mix all of this together so it seems of one piece. Blinded by the Light is fan service but it’s also more than that. It uses fan service to show us people trying desperately to find the end of the day at home with someone they love. The fan service it gives us is the best kind-the kind which holds a mirror up so we can see ourselves reflected within the art itself.