Review: Blinded by the Light

You never forget your first. 

Sometimes it’s just a fling, a high-school sweetheart or a long-term love affair. When the young Javed Kahn (newcomer Viveik Kalra) meets his soulmate, he is hopelessly devoted: wrap him up and stick a denim and flannel coloured bow on him, he has found The One. 

It’s thrilling, the first time you hear the song, band or artist that just seem to get it. Their music speaks to you, they understand your teen angst and frustration like no one else can. In Blinded By the Light, there is only Bruce Springsteen, and Javed’s love for The Boss is a joyous, though somewhat over-wrought devotion.

The year is 1987 in the industrial town of Luton, England. Margaret Thatcher is still raging on, the unemployment rate is rapidly increasing, and the fascist far-right National Front continues to rise. However, all Javed wants to do is to be a writer and leave the dead-end Luton behind. He feels like no one understands him: not his best friend Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman), whom he writes politically-charged songs for, much to Matt’s chagrin. Least of all his traditional hard-working father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), who urges him to stay close to home; reminds him that he is Pakistani, not English; insists he become a lawyer or a real estate agent instead of a writer. So when the music of Bruce Springsteen is introduced to him by fellow Pakistani schoolmate, Roops (Aaron Phagura), it’s like he can finally see the light. 

Upon this discovery, in a montage straight out of an amateur music video, the lyrics of Springsteen’s songs hit Javed like the gale-force wind of the storm he is walking through (c’est dramatique!). The lyrics appear on the screen, projected across the entire expanse of garage doors, emphasising the words which are affecting Javed so much: “There’s something happening somewhere” from ‘Dancing in the Dark’; “Mister I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man / And I believe in a promised land” from ‘The Promised Land’. 

It’s a very adolescent feeling, thinking no one else could ever understand you. So, it’s exciting when you find an artist or an artform that speaks to you on a personal level. What Blinded by the Light does best is emphasise how life-changing and powerful this can be, especially when it occurs when you’re coming of age. It’s a running theme throughout the film: for Javed’s sister Shazia (Nikita Mehta), the art which speaks to her are the “Daylighter” secret raves, which play Pakistani pop music in the middle of the day, away from the purview of their parents. For Matt, it’s synths or something.

Inevitably, Javed’s relationship with Springsteen becomes an obsession. It’s all he and Roops can talk about, and all they listen to. There is nary a scene where Springsteen isn’t mentioned. Together, Javed and Roops ask the school radio DJ if they can have their own Springsteen-exclusive radio show, and when he refuses, the pair break in and play ‘Born to Run’ through the school speakers. What follows is a joyous sequence of Javed, Roops and rebel-activist classmate Eliza (Nell Williams) running, dancing and singing through town as the song plays. It perfectly captures the heart-filling freedom the track inspires: the heart-filling freedom of being young, selfish and full of hope. Their love of Springsteen is, in this moment, understandable. 

As he delves further into Springsteen-land, Javed transforms on screen. In adopting the double denim and flannel look of his musical idol, he gains the confidence to share his writing with his English teacher (an underused Hayley Atwell) and the school newspaper, and ask out Eliza. The power of Springsteen! Of music! However, his obsession also pulls him away further from his family, especially his father. When his family needs him most—during an altercation with a National Front march on his sister’s wedding day—he’s not there, instead chasing his ‘runaway American Dream’.

Blinded by the Light is director Gurinder Chadha’s first return to teen film since 2008’s Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging. Even though she’s been making films in the meantime—2010’s It’s a Wonderful Afterlife, 2017’s Viceroys House— the film feels out of practice. Co-written by Chadha, Paul Mayeda Berges (Bend It Like Beckham) and Sarfraz Manzoor, the film bargains  on the Springsteen factor. Dumplin’, a teen film released on Netflix late last year about the Dolly Parton-loving Willowdean Dickson was able to strike the right balance: the love of Dolly was there, as was her music, but this affection became a complementary plotline rather than consuming the entire narrative. (Sorry Javed—loving Bruce Springsteen isn’t a personality).

Based on co-writer Manzoor’s 2007 memoir, Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Roll, the film is determined to keep the emphasis on Springsteen, especially given Javed’s character is a reflection of his own obsession. Of course, based on premise alone, Springsteen is one of—if not the only—draw to the film. A quirky teen film set in the 80s with ‘Born to Run’, ‘Dancing in the Dark’ and ‘Thunder Road’? That’s what you’re here for! But the script could have taken a couple more passes. Sentiments are repetitive—did you hear that he loves Springsteen? That he wants to be a writer? That no one understands?—and so is the music, as the same songs play through the film ad nauseum. I hate to say it, but I was kind of sick of Springsteen by the end, and I longed for the fun 80s flair from the first act (BS—Before Springsteen), where Javed and his family gave the family car a push start to the sounds of Mental As Anything.

Ultimately, I can’t help but wonder if the film would have worked better as a musical. There’s a musical scene in the film, as Javed serenades Eliza with ‘Thunder Road’ at the local market. It’s sweet, and Kalra has a decent voice. But imagine how great it could have been to see Javed singing the words that meant so much to him as a semi-autobiographical narration to what was happening in his life, instead of the songs providing a soundtrack like a megaphone. I might be thinking this because Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again was my top film of 2018, but the autobiographical musical is basically a trend at this point: from Sing Street (2016) to Rocketman (2019) (the jury is still out on Yesterday [2019]). As a musical fan, I think this device would have helped imbricate the glorious relatability of this white American singer-songwriter’s music and life to this Pakistani-British kid in England. It’s a less jarring (and less obvious) device than having the lyrics appear on screen: literally telling, not showing.

Potentially refined formal elements aside, at the heart of Blinded by the Light is a very apt message, as relevant now as it was in the 1980s: no matter what may divide us in nationality or country, we are united by our struggles, our love and our pain. Javed comes to this realisation by the end. In a touching speech given at a school awards night, he goes off-script from his prize-winning (and yes, Springsteen devoted) essay, as he realises The Boss doesn’t emphasise the ways he’s different from his family and in particular, his father. Rather, he finally embraces their similarities.

Whether you believe the music is speaking to tensions within the family, or international unison, as father and son speed away from Luton at the end of the film, Javed’s father finds that even he—indeed, all of us—are born to run.

Blinded by the Light is now showing in Australian cinemas.

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Claire White is a writer, bookseller and teen screen tragic from Melbourne, Australia. She recently completed an Honours thesis in Screen Studies and has written for Junkee, 4:3, The Big Issue, Screen Queens and more. Follow her at @teencineteq and @theclairencew.

Claire White