One thing seemed apparent not too far into Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded By the Light: I know (and love) the lyrics to pretty much every song Bruce Springsteen recorded in the seventies and eighties. That’s an asset to enjoying this quirky coming-of-age story set in England during the last few years of the Reagan/Thatcher era, but it isn’t a prerequisite. Like the movie’s main character, Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra), you absolutely can discover the nearly universal appeal of Springsteen’s music as the story unfolds.
Javed, the son of Muslim Pakistani immigrants in a drab, working class neighborhood, has been writing poetry and keeping a diary since he was in grade school. He keeps this side of himself hidden from his parents, particularly his overbearing, embittered father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), who sees no future and no value in pursuing a career as a writer. He tells his father he’s studying economics at the local sixth form college (sort of an English version of a junior college), though in fact he’s studying creative writing under the tutelage of the sympathetic Miss Clay, played luminously by Hayley Atwell (Captain America: The First Avenger).
Just as important at this pivotal juncture in Javed’s life, is his accidental encounter with classmate Roops (Aaron Phagura), who loans him cassettes (an eighties form of audio recording) of a couple of Springsteen albums, including his hugely popular Born in the USA. The moment “Dancing in the Dark” hammers through his Walkman headphones, (“There’s something happening somewhere…”), he’s transformed. He becomes obsessed (the lyrics actually swirl around his head onscreen) but more than that, he’s adrenalized as though he’s just gotten a shot of pure Springsteen right in his heart. He’s literally conversing in Springsteen lyrics), standing up to racist bullies and asking out an actual girl.
Wisely, director/co-writer Chadha doesn’t use any of The Boss’ music until Javed hears it for the first time. Popular, early and mid-eighties MTV hits pop up on the soundtrack in the early scenes, only to be consigned to the cutout bins as soon as “Dancing in the Dark,” “The River,” “Thunder Road,” “Born in the USA,” “Prove it All Night” and “Because the Night” rear their heads. Were the Pet Shop Boys and Cutting Crew really that forgettable?
Um, apparently yes.
And in fact the movie doesn’t really find its pulse until we hear Springsteen’s music. The stuff that comes before is anemic in comparison, and Springsteen’s songs are very literally the life blood of this story, and their driving rhythms are its heartbeat. And what a heartbeat it is. You’ll be hard-pressed to resist seat-dancing.
Once the blood is pumping, Blinded by the Light flirts with being a movie musical, and a good one at that. Some of the scenes of Javed, his Anglo girlfriend Eliza (Nell Williams) and Roops running, dancing and jumping through city streets and countryside compare favorably with La La Land.
I was a seventeen year old freshman at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts when I first heard “Born to Run” in the fall of 1975. I’d never heard of Bruce Springsteen before, but I was hooked then. No, the lyrics didn’t orbit my head like cartoon birdies after an anvil fell me (that’s a movie thing, it doesn’t happen in real life), but Springsteen’s anthems spoke to me on a personal level as they have to so many millions of others, and that’s part of the point of Blinded by the Light. I have as little, and as much, in common with Springsteen as Javed – the guy from the working class neighborhood in Asbury Park, New Jersey who reaches the common denominators of people all over the world.
Chadha previously wrote and directed the sharp and funny Bend it Like Beckham in 2002, putting herself and Keira Knightley on the map. She hasn’t done anything quite that good since, but Blinded by the Light comes close, despite a few potentially serious missteps. Thankfully, for much of its nearly two hour running time, Blinded by the Light is an exuberant and entertaining coming-of-age comedy. The plot is essentially paint-by-numbers, but the cast is so likeable that the audience is likely to forgive the lack of surprises along the way. father/son Kalra plays Javed with an irresistible charm and sincerity, and as an immigrant father straight from central casting, Kulvinder Ghir commendably manages to dignify a thinly-written, stock role. The father/son antagonism aspects of the story are no more surprising, and anyone who can’t see the third act resolution coming doesn’t get out enough. (Apparently the memoir the movie is “inspired” by doesn’t have as happy an ending.)
A subplot dealing with racist persecution of the Pakistani immigrants in the community is harsh and uncompromising, made all the more squirm-worthy by the fact that they could practically be the lead story on the evening news right now. The swastika-wearing white supremacists depicted here could just as easily be chanting “Send her back” at a Trump rally. Chadha grinds gears a little on the tonal shifts, but there’s denying the relevance.
Blinded by the Light is not a subtle movie, but it’s too good-natured to call it heavy-handed. Predictability isn’t the worst sin a feel-good movie can commit, and there’s no denying that virtually no other cinematic ode to popular music, particularly by one group or artist, managed to be this entertaining. And there’s something irresistible about listening to “Born to Run” while watching a car drive on the left. Sprung from a cage on highway nine, this chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected confection steps out over the line, guards our dreams and visions, and if dreams came true, wouldn’t that be nice?