It’s funny how once in a while we’ll see several films with similar themes come around in the same year. In fact, I did an entire list about this phenomenon a while back which you can check out here. This year previously saw The Beatles become the focus of a British Indian man’s search for purpose in life in “Yesterday”. While it’s not exactly the same, this past weekend we saw another British Indian man find purpose in life through the music of a very different musical icon, Bruce Springsteen. What sets “Blinded by the Light” apart is that it is based on a real story and is more a coming-of-age film than fantasy. What drew me to this movie in particular is that it’s directed by Gurinder Chadha who also led “Bend it Like Beckham” which served as my first introduction to Indian culture in film way back in my pre-teen days in 2002. With a capable director and coming highly recommended by critics leading up to its release I went against the grain and decided to give “Blinded by the Light” a chance. Is this truly the feel-good movie of the year as some have claimed or were they simple, wait for it, BLINDED BY THE LIGHT?!?!?!?!…I’m sorry for that…on with the review!
Based on the memoir “Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Roll” by Safraz Monzoor, “Blinded by the Light” focuses on Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra), a stand-in for Safraz in the story, who lives with a conservative Muslim family in Luton, England. Despite the disapproval of his father, Javed enjoys writing and contemporary rock. Javed bonds with the only other South Asian student at his school Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) who introduces him to the music of Bruce Springsteen while his teacher Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell) tries to help Javed embrace his writing talents. Javed finds himself inspired by the music of Springsteen leading him to be more rebellious against his parents’ wishes and explore the world beyond the bubble of his family and culture all the while dealing with the racism and economic stress of 1987 Britain. However, as Javed begins to find his own voice and grows farther from his family he also comes to realize that he might be the one who is truly “blinded by the light”.
“Blinded by the Light” hits a lot of familiar notes on its way to glorifying the discography of one of America’s most iconic music artists, but like many of Gurinder Chadha’s other films it manages to capture universally relatable themes while also making a point to put the focus on culture and the value of choosing one’s own path in life. I’ll admit growing up I wasn’t exactly the biggest fan of The Boss. I didn’t hate his music, it just wasn’t what I listened to at the time. But I think a lot of us, myself especially, can relate to the journey of growth and self-discovery that Javed undergoes in this movie. Music as an art, much like film, is meant to resonate, express a message and, at times, entertain and serve as a form of escapism. Javed sees all of this in the music of Springsteen. It speaks to his teen angst in a world where so much seems to be stacked against him, it inspires him to be a more positive person and a risk-taker, and it serves as a way for him to cope with the struggles of the world around him and make sense of it all. Javed finds escape and meaning in the songs of Springsteen which in turn sparks a transformation, one that while initially inspiring also proves to be flawed in how devoted Javed becomes to that evolution. Even still, nothing is more satisfying than experiencing art that speaks to you and makes you feel free and understood. Thanks to an amazingly committed and charming performance by lead actor Viveik Karla we get that from Javed whose energy and personal torture jump off the screen every time he turns on his Walkman.
But this is so much more than just a glorification of Springsteen’s music. “Blinded by the Light” is appropriately named because of the effect that Javed’s newfound confidence and identity has on the rest of his life. As Javed grows into his own he begins to resent his parents, his upbringing, and even his friends. He finds it hard to balance respecting where he comes from and where he wants to go and granted his family doesn’t make this easy for him either. While the relationships between Javed and his loved ones, especially his father Malik played perfectly by Kulvinder Ghir, do embrace maybe a few too many simple genre clichés specifically designed to force an emotional response in the viewer there’s still a believable struggle among all parties concerning to reach that level of understanding required to respect ones past while also being unafraid to chase a dream. Religion, race relations, and parental relationships among Indian and Muslim families are normal themes explored in Chadha’s work so I wasn’t surprised to see them so prevalent in this picture, but while anyone who has see this director’s films before might be familiar with her style she always find a new way to tell these stories that makes them relatable not just to people of a certain race or belief system, but to everyone who has ever found themselves stuck between living by expectations and exploring the adventure of life. The important thing is to never forget where you came from while never losing that spark. That is the most important theme of this film playing alongside the significance of music on a teenager’s life.
I also enjoyed the worldbuilding worked into this movie and the writers’ abilities to depict a late 80s Britain in economic turmoil without going too far over the top. Both Chadha and Manzoor worked with Paul Mayeda Berges to pen the screenplay and what they brought to the table is a story that paints an impressively bleak yet subtle and brutally honest depiction of a dark and confusing era in Britain’s modern history. This presentation of real-world Britain in the 80s plays well into Javed’s story. We’re shown several instances of racism in the public eye while in the confines of the home conservative religious morals challenge Javed’s search for an identity. The outside world hates who he is and the world he lives in behind closed doors doesn’t want him to be anything else. Javed tries to support his family financially after his father it laid off, but this also proves a challenge when he wants to do something for his own happiness. Even the simple truth of being misunderstood is touched upon as Javed’s love for Springsteen makes him out of touch in the eyes of his peers. Through an immersive and detailed presentation of a bygone era of Britain “Blinded by the Light” takes the craft of storytelling to many different lengths in order to fully realize situations, the main characters journey, and social constructs that stand in the protagonists way all without feeling pretentious or preachy. It’s a perfect balance of world, story, and character development that makes this true-life drama engaging and easy to embrace.
While it might be comfortable sticking to some familiar formulas and conventions in its own right, “Blinded by the Light” goes the extra mile to tell a story that is both universally relatable and an insightful journey into one man’s real-life challenge of escaping the confines of his predetermined culture to find his own place in the world. It neither vilifies nor glorifies his resolve, but rather presents us with a two-sided story where a balance is required in order to appreciate the journey of life as a whole. Doing so through the music of a musical legend like Bruce Springsteen serves as a fine reminder of the impact of music on our lives and how art can prove so inspiring especially to youth looking for an identity. “Blinded by the Light” is simply an awesome film. It’s complex yet simple, charming yet honest, and, most of all, it packs emotional depth while being a goosebump-inducing two hours of fun. Like the man whose music inspired it, “Blinded by the Light” takes the simple challenges of life and presents them in a manner that we can all appreciate, understand and relate to. It really is the feel-good story of the year.