Blinded By The Light

Sensitive poetry-writing teen Javed (Viveik Kalra) faces racism in the streets and strictness in the home from his disciplinarian father (Kulvinder Ghir). Yet his life is transformed when he is introduced by new buddy Roops (Aaron Phagura) to the music of Bruce Springsteen. Soon after, a world of writing, love and optimism opens up for him.

By Ian Freer | Posted 5 Aug 2019

At one point during the 1984/85 ‘Born In The USA’ tour, in-between ‘Follow The Dream’ and ‘Born To Run’, Bruce Springsteen would regularly tell the assembled head-banded throng hanging on his every word: “No-one wins unless everyone wins.” Based on Safraz Manzoor’s memoir Greetings From Bury Park, Blinded By The Light, Gurinder Chadha’s power ballad to the wisdom of The Boss courses with a similar sense of generosity and empowerment. Yet rather than locate it in Smalltown USA, Chadha’s film plays out in 1980s Luton, and gets mileage out of juxtaposing Bruce’s big ideas and dreams against the humdrum and unrest in Thatcher-era Britain in general, and the realities of working-class Pakistani life in particular. The result is Chadha’s most consistently winning film since Bend It Like Beckham, a sprightly, upbeat, vibrant romp that smuggles in persuasive themes about finding your voice within competing cultures.

Manzoor’s on-screen alter-ego is Javed (played by a winning Viveik Kalra), a Pakistani teenager under the thumb of his strict father (Ghir), spat on in the street by skinheads and falling behind in the girls-and-parties stakes to his neighbour Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman). Things look up when he arrives at sixth form college (“Stay away from the girls and look for the Jews in your class!” his dad tells him, dropping him off) and he meets an inspirational writing teacher (Hayley Atwell), a sparky politicised girl, Eliza (Nell Williams), and fast friend Roops (Phagura). The latter immediately thrusts cassettes of ‘Born In The USA’ and ‘Darkness On The Edge Of Town’ into Javed’s hands, confident the magic of Springsteen will weave its spell.

Like the best pop, the film wears its broadness and corniness like a badge of honour, but you’d need a hard heart to resist.

As a wise man once said, you can’t start a fire (can’t start a fire) without a spark, and Springsteen is Javed’s spark. Chadha and the writing team serves up a riot of rites-of-passage moments, from a first kiss and swapping Tiffany for ‘Born To Run’ on the school radio station to cutting the sleeves off jean jackets and pilgrimages to Asbury Park. If nothing else, Blinded By The Light is a rolling jukebox of Springsteen’s greatest hits; during ‘Dancing In The Dark’, the lyrics burst out of Javed’s head onto the locations and the screen, ‘The Promised Land’ is the perfect accompaniment to a key turning point in the pouring rain, and ‘Born To Run’ drives a moment of rebellion that turns into a full-on musical — it feels too overblown for the world of the film but you go with it anyway. (Chadha also does a neat job of playing the authenticity of Bruce against ’80s deep cuts like Cutting Crew’s ‘(I Just Died) In Your Arms’ and Mental As Anything’s ‘Live It Up’). Like Sing Street, Blinded By The Light is great on the restorative power of pop, how music can give you a sense of self, how a lyric written in New Jersey can encapsulate an exact moment in your life in Bedfordshire. Like the best pop, the film wears its broadness (hello, Rob Brydon as Matt’s dad) and corniness like a badge of honour, but you’d need to have a hard heart to resist.

Chadha also doesn’t stint on a valuable portrait of British Pakistani life in the ’80s, adding textures — a family keeps a plastic sheet on the floor for when hooligan kids piss through the letterbox — and an almost anthropological zeal to capture the beats of growing up: there is a touching scene of a day-time Muslim disco, played out in slow motion that crystallises an important ritual for young Asians. We may have seen overbearing Pakistani fathers before, but Khir gives Javed’s father both humour and humanity, still wanting the best for his offspring, even if he can’t commit to his son becoming a writer (“You can choose to be a doctor or a lawyer, so don’t say I don’t give you any freedom!”). How the aspirant writer and his family begin to resolve their differences is beautifully written and played. To paraphrase ‘Thunder Road’, Javed is in a town full of losers and he’s pulling out of here to win. And when he does it’s a punch-the-air joy.

Combining both the universality and specificity of Springsteen’s music, Blinded By The Light is an exuberant anthem to the importance of music, the need to be seen and the hope of new possibilities.