[NOTE: Film previously viewed as part of the 2019 Seattle International Film Festival]
Queen. Elton John. The Beatles. Even Motley Crüe. And now Bruce Springsteen. You probably know where I’m going with this. Classic Rock is becoming a precise cinematic trend where either the biographical or the experimental sorts of filmmaking are reaching a mild fever. And in Gurinder Chadra’s Blinded by the Light, it’s The Boss who’s immortalized next, through an autobiographical tale that’s as working-class as it gets, and oddly relevant as the daily newspaper. And after two recent viewings, it still shocks me just how poignant it aims to be in the face of clinical unrest, where the only solution for peace may be the poetry of one of New Jersey’s finest.
But this is not an American coming of age tale; if anything, it’s more British, in the 80s. And involving a Pakistani teen and his family just working to breakeven in a sleepy suburb of Thatcher-era London. Matters are only complicated through the course of an otherwise typical school year when father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) is laid off from his longtime stint at a GM plant. He’s the type of dad more focused on keeping a roof under their family, and their family under the radar, resistant to common pop culture trends. This is where son Javed (Viveik Kalra) wants to be most engrossed in, as he settles into the hierarchy of public sixth-form college. He’s a long road away from the popular kids; next-door neighbor Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) bests him at every turn there. But he’s in no way slow to confide in the company of like-minded peers: instant bestie Roops (Aaron Phagura), his gateway to Bruce on cassettes; headstrong Miss Clay (Hayley Atwell), who gives Javed the chance to speak his truth through the written word, and radicalistic Eliza (Nell Williams), whom he develops a mild attraction to.
Chadra, who made women’s soccer mainstream in Bend it Like Beckham, crafts an equally personal celebration of the unbridled power music can occupy toward the right person. Adapting from the memoirs of journalist Sarfraz Manzoor and his unique fondness for Bruce, Chadra and her frequent writing partner Paul Mayeda Berges seize the opportunity to make the warrior poet’s music come to life, earning their respective worth to encapsulate Javed’s journeys. His heart sets out on becoming a writer in his own respects, following confidently in the footsteps of his hero, a fresh voice to the voiceless. His parents refuse to have his back as they save up for a forthcoming family wedding, the rest of Luton does, and they will show that by casual Bruce singalongs. Make no mistake, its spirit is impossibly infectious; if you don’t find yourself humming along to the strains of ‘Born to Run’ while our three heroes roam around their neighborhood like crazed, passionate teens, you likely lack a soul. It’s those moments where Blinded turns unashamedly formulaic in its execution, but it will be readily impossible to ignore those tunes, those lyrics when they play out aurally, and even visually in typographical form. Were it any other film, any other director, I’m sure I wouldn’t be so warm to receive such techniques to drill in the intricately combined message towards said lyrics. Either it will hit the heart immediately, or it will not at all, so best be prepared.
And of course, Javed himself couldn’t be better cast to tackle such a strong, concerned, resilient human being. Kalra is all those elements, keeping in mind his inner musicality, despite him not truly singing all that much the same way we’d expect of Taron Egerton. And that’s plenty OK, a voice can be just as strong when it’s merely reading a powerful essay speaking toward one’s turbulent and hostile community. And Kalra delivers possibly one of the best performances this year, knowing that voice can matter just as much as mere action would. In his case, perhaps more. Williams, Atwell, and fellow newcomer Nikita Mehta (Javed’s younger sis Shazia), they’re all exemplary in their performances alongside Kalra, being the supportive shoulder for one struggling individual. Even dear Rob Brydon gets involved, with high marks, as Matt’s dad, a street market clothing shop vendor whose musical range is well-flexed.
As I wrote this review, “Dancing in the Dark” was consistently playing in my head. That alone should show just how much the right musical works can speak to the right person. Much like you can’t start a fire without a spark, confident creativity can’t start without the best catalyst to be inspired by. Springsteen was the poster child of working-class ethics through his personal image in the 70s. Javed, and to a smaller extent Sarfraz, essentially his overseas counterpart. Keeping his head up high, determined to look past his family’s expectations, Dad (whom Ghir portrays with a stern focus) stereotypically wants him to be a doctor. “I don’t want to be your son. I want to be more than that”, Javed lashes out at one point, frustrations expectedly running high. That sort of tense family drama is the only other aspect necessary to really keep me gripped to my seat, to balance the mere poppiness Bruce’s music represents on its own. You may never be able to listen to “Badlands” or “Jungleland” or even the title track the same way again.
Out of this recent trend of music-friendly pictures, Blinded by the Light perhaps stands out the most knowing it’s taking established classics of modern music, turning them into pure capsules of personal storytelling. Sarfraz Mandoor’s novel may have served as the required blueprint. Chadra made it a wonderful spectacle that needn’t go over the top, stay firm on its feet, and unafraid to have some fun with its capture of both British culture (you manage to get a Level 42 song in your soundtrack within the first five minutes and I am sold) and Pakistani struggle (plastic mats just over the door to prevent disappointing fluids from entering the floors) rolled into one. Think of it as a time capsule story with a deeper historical edge. And when it gets all its cards right, its main tell being an appropriate lyric or two by the man himself, then it manages to win the house. That would make it a film for this year, if not this decade, a film that doesn’t celebrate the transformative power of music to change lives, to escape the shadows of our past selves. It doesn’t stop at just that. It speaks to the power of family, and to the wholesomeness of humanity, where racial unrest takes a backseat to goal-oriented prosperity. Something attainable with enough work put in; something even a tramp (or champ) like Javed can truly achieve. (4/5 Horns Up)
Blinded by the Light is in area theaters now; rated PG-13 for thematic material and language including some ethnic slurs; 117 minutes.
Check out the trailer below…