Blinded by the Light
Springsteen-inspired “musical” tries to mix realism and romance
Blinded by the Light (2019)
Directed by Gurinder Chadha
Cast: Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Aaron Phagura, Hayley Atwell
Outside the confines of metropolitan London, England is a fascinatingly contradictory place—to judge by movies, anyway. Small-town, backwater English towns are—without exception, it seems—picturesque industrial wastelands. From Wales to the Scottish border, you’ll find countless economically devastated towns whose downtrodden, unemployed citizens are easily and instantaneously uplifted by the sudden introduction of a new trend such as male striptease (The Full Monty), the lottery (Waking Ned Devine), marching bands (Brassed Off), ballet (Billy Elliot), thigh-high drag queen boots (Kinky Boots), post-menopausal nudity (Calendar Girls) and the like. Blinded by the Light, the newest film from writer-director Gurinder Chada (Bend It Like Beckham, Bride & Prejudice), follows that formula to a T. The results are their own contradiction of crowd-pleasing and corny, earnest and overly familiar.
Blinded by the Light takes us to the factory-filled Bedfordshire borough of Luton, circa 1987. England is mired in the increasingly austere economic grip of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Teenagers are forced to wear neon-colored tracksuits and hair scrunchies. It is a dark time.
On the streets of Luton, we meet 16-year-old Javed (Viveik Kalra), your average, dorky, unpopular teenager. Javed dreams of escaping from Luton and going somewhere wonderful. Unfortunately, dad has been laid off from his longtime automotive factory job and mom hunkers over a sewing machine 20 hours a day just to keep the family fed. Needless to say, Javed’s chances of going to a fancy university in some big city are increasingly slim. Adding further to our protagonist’s woes is Javed’s heritage. His parents emigrated from Pakistan when he was a baby. Bad as our world’s racial divide is these days, ’80s England was an even more heated environment for Neo-Nazi sentiment against immigrants (Pakistanis in particular). Javed is bullied, teased and attacked nearly everywhere he goes. The fact that he’s an aspiring poet is the cherry on top of the nerd sundae.
One day at school, however, a considerably cooler Sikh kid (Aaron Phagura) introduces Javed to “The Boss.” Evidently, poor, sheltered Javed has never heard of Bruce Springsteen. One cassette copy of Born in the U.S.A. in his Walkman later, and he’s a major convert. Something about Bruce’s tales of lonely teenagers raging to escape their crummy industrial hometowns strikes a chord with Javed. Soon, he’s showing up at school in white T-shirts and blue jean jackets. This only serves to make him a further outcast among his stylish classmates (who are still sporting Flock of Seagulls haircuts, for some reason).
Blinded by the Light is based loosely on journalist Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir Greetings From Bury Park: Race. Religion. Rock ’N’ Roll. So there’s some ring of truth to it. It is, more than anything, a vivid reminder of the potent songwriting skill of Mr. Springsteen. In Blinded by the Light’s most bravura moments, the words to “The Promised Land” (and other songs) spill out onto the movie screen, swirling around Javed’s head and splashing themselves across the dirty brick walls of Luton. It’s not exactly subtle, but it gets the point across.
Admittedly, I was swayed. Reminded of how damn good Bruce’s first seven albums (including Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River) are, I immediately went out and purchased Volume 1 of the Springsteen Album Collection (1973-1984). But is the man who wrote “I wanna die with you Wendy on the street tonight in an everlasting kiss” really the best inspiration for an uplifiting, feel-good dramedy? Should we expect to see this adapted as a jukebox musical on Broadway like The Full Monty and Kinky Boots before it?
Sure, Blinded by the Light has its moments of drama and seriousness (Javed’s conflicts with his traditional father, his run-ins with various National Front toughs). But Springsteen’s gritty songs are simply at odds with the film’s cornier moments. Is the working-class rock of The Boss really magical enough to inspire Brits, young and old, to break out into spontaneous song-and-dance sequences on the streets of rural England? Probably not. Chadha is nothing if not enthusiastic and earnest. Unfortunately, she pushes Manzoor’s story into fantastical movie musical moments that read as either convenient (at best) or silly (at worst). Our impoverished protagonist’s rapid-fire, out-of-nowhere trip to Asbury Park, N.J. (shot entirely in montage, for crying out loud) is a prime example. There are moments watching Blinded by the Light when the film seems like it’s straining to be an all-out, fantasy-filled musical along the lines of Bye Bye Birdie—only to have the filmmakers remember it’s not, and stop short.
For the most part, Blinded by the Light is a shamelessly romantic and occasionally exhilarating coming-of-age tale. We all lived through a time period when every pop song seemed to be written exclusively for us, and it feels bad to root against a film that celebrates that. Overly sentimental, prone to wild exaggeration and filled with narrative convenience, Blinded by the Light is a long way from perfection. If you’re predisposed to the music of Bruce Springsteen, however, or have a weakness for feel-good movies about scrappy Brits lifted out of their socioeconomic stresses by a little song and dance, Blinded by the Light will have you singing along in no time.
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