BLINDED BY THE LIGHT

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Gurinder Chadha

Stars: Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Dean-Charles Chapman, Nell Williams, Rob Brydon, Hayley Atwell, Aaron Phagura, Meera Ganatra.

Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura, and Viveik Kalra in Blinded by the Light (2019)

Inspired by the music of Bruce Springsteen and based on a true story, this jukebox musical is one of the best feel good crowd pleasing coming of age stories to hit the screen this year. The film is from Gurinder Chadha, and it shares a few thematic similarities with her breakthrough film Bend It Like Beckham, which told the story of an Indian girl in England who defied her family’s expectations and traditions to follow her passion and ambition to play soccer. Similarly, Blinded By The Light deals with the experience of second generation British-Indian teenagers trying to find their way in life while struggling to fit in to two different cultures.

The film is set in the depressingly grim industrial town of Luton in the mid-80s, a time of austerity, unemployment, xenophobia and racism in Thatcher era England. Pakistani-British teen Javed (played by newcomer Viveik Kalra in his film debut) is a bit of a misfit who is struggling to find acceptance and his place as he is caught between two vastly different cultures. The sensitive poetry writing teen is bullied at school and feels trapped in this dead-end town. He wants to be a writer, while his deeply conservative father (Kulvinder Ghir) wants him to follow in his footsteps and become an accountant, which is a much more worthy and honourable profession.

But then a school friend (Aaron Phagura) introduces Javed to the music of Springsteen, and it changes his life. Javed feels that Springsteen’s lyrics, which depict the struggles and aspirations of the working class and their desire to follow their hopes and dreams, speak directly to him and his plight. The lyrics of some key songs are writ large on the screen, which adds to their power and impact. The songs give him the inspiration to forge his own path and follow his dreams. Javed wants to build a bridge to his own ambition without building a wall between him and his family.

Blinded By The Light, which takes its title from one of Springsteen’s songs from his debut Greetings From Asbury Park album, is based on Greetings From Bury Park – Race, Religion, Rock N Roll, the autobiographical memoir of BBC journalist Sarfaz Manzoor, whose life was changed by the music of Springsteen. An avid fan, he has seen “the Boss” in concert over 100 times. During the end credits we see some photographs of Manzoor with Springsteen.

The book also held great appeal for Chadha, who is of mixed Indian and British descent and experienced at first hand the troubled journey of migrants to fit in and assimilate to another culture. She draws on her own experiences to help shape the film. But she was also a fan of Springsteen, which gave her a deeper insight into Manzoor’s personal journey. She met Springsteen at the London premiere of the documentary The Promise and he gave his approval for the project. And he granted the filmmakers access to his music. The soundtrack features wall to wall Springsteen hits from the 70s and early 80s.

This endearing and optimistic film is laced with generous doses of humour, warmth and compassion. Chandha also explores the potent political environment of the time, giving the material a topical edge as well.

Newcomer Kalra brings plenty of infectious charm and youthful energy to his performance as Javed, and it is easy to empathise with him and his situation. Ghir is also good as Javed’s overbearing father, who is a bit of a stereotype, but he gives him a humanity. Chadha has ramped up the tension between Javed and his father for dramatic purposes here. Hayley Atwell registers strongly in a small role as the English teacher who encourages Javed’s ambitions and supports him.  

Like the superb 2016 film Sing Street, Blinded By The Light is an upbeat film about the power of music to transform lives. It is also Chadha’s most broadly appealing film since Bend It Like Beckham, and is a real winner. It benefits from a killer soundtrack featuring some of the Boss’s best known tracks. Blinded By The Light is a four-star film, but the superb soundtrack earns an extra half a star.

★★★★☆

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