There’s a great misconception about the music of Bruce Springsteen. Here, in 2019, as well as back in 1987 – when “Blinded by the Light” takes place – people have looked at Springsteen’s work as hymns aimed at those who toil in factories, punch a clock, and do the dirty jobs that keep society functioning. However, while the anthems resonate with that group, without question, the songs were always designed, from his very start in 1973 on, to appeal to the youth. The tunes were about middle-class people in their experiences and struggles with life, the trials, and tribulations of working-class America. Concepts of love, getting out of town, making a place in the world, Springsteen waxed poetic on them all with enduring melodies. “Blinded by the Light” understands this perfectly and is one of the best films of 2019 due in no small part to that very idea.
“Blinded by the Light” is not just a delightful crowd-pleaser, based on the memoir “Greetings from Bury Park” by Sarfraz Manzoor. The film is also a rare example of how cinema can perfectly capture an evocative emotionally spiritual experience. This movie knows exactly what it’s like, internally and externally, to discover Springsteen; how the music makes one feel. Even down to how the music manifests itself into a person’s actions. The perceptive nature of the picture is so on the nose, it can cause a visceral reaction in fans of The Boss.
Living in 1987 England, Javed (Viveik Kalra) feels as though he has no place, both within his community as well as within his family. Jobs are scarce, the Neo-Nazi National Front is marching in the streets, but Javed just wants to have the normal teenage experience he sees all around him. A Pakistani teen who stands out like a sore thumb, his demanding father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) insists he keeps his head down and simply work hard, hoping Javed ends up with a good job, avoiding the factory life to which the patriarch has been condemned. Javed is not fully British but isn’t fully Pakistani, either. He can’t seem to articulate or feel confident in his identity. That all changes when a friend at school hands him two cassettes of music by an American rocker named Bruce Springsteen. One night, feeling hopeless after his father has lost his job, figuring he’ll have to drop out of school to help make ends meet, he pops in the “Darkness on the Edge of Town” cassette and presses play. The music begins, and life will never be the same again.
The words of Springsteen open Javed’s eyes. He hasn’t just found a musical idol, he’s found a guiding force through life. As if born again, he begins to see everything through the lens of Springsteen. This fuels not just his creative writing, which catches the eye of his teacher (Hayley Atwell), but ignites a relationship with classmate Eliza (Nell Williams), as well. The words of “Prove It All Night” inspire him not just to ask her out on a date, but to kiss her when the moment feels right between the young loves. However, his father still disapproves, wanting a serious, white-collar life for his son. Javed wants to pursue writing and move far away from his family. Much like Springsteen went to battle with his dad, so too must Javed.
This is far from just a tribute to the legendary musician. While his influence is omnipresent and central to the story, this could just as easily have been about a teen discovering cinema, or a book, or really anything. The film is a perceptive and euphoria-inducing look at how coming of age can help you not only find your way but ultimately mend family fences.
There’s low-key charm throughout the cast of “Blinded by the Light.” Viveik Kalra brings a wide-eyed innocence to Javed. Presented at the start as lost, Kalra inhabits someone perfectly suited to fall head over heels for a musician, a teen yearning to break free and live life, but needing a spark. Bruce Springsteen is there at the right time for him and the connection is instantaneous, and as the artist says, “You can’t start a fire without a spark.” Likewise, as his love of Springsteen grows, not just his outward appearance changes.
Javed becomes more assertive and begins to determine his place in maneuvering the world, molding himself in the image of his hero. Not only does he dress like The Boss, but he also uses the lyrics of his songs to spur himself into action. Writing poetry, getting into journalism, and kissing the girl of his dreams; it’s everything he’s wanted but never had the confidence to pursue. And Springsteen gives him the backbone to shoot for. It’s never handled in an overly dramatic manner, but rather in such a way that the evolution is natural and completely believable. Between his performance and the pacing/structure of the film, the depiction of Javed’s journey is lively and vivid.
Kalra’s performance is the crescendo to this ballad, though the supporting players offering beats and notes that make the film sing. Kulvinder Ghir movingly depicts a stubborn father who only wants the best for his family, yet has a difficult time finding the right words. Malik has never found the balance between being the sole authority of the family and showing his clear love. When Javed begins evolving, the strain becomes all the more prevalent. Ghir, with some apt help from the screenplay, more than hints at the same relationship Springsteen had with his own father.
Over the years, both in his music as well as more recently in his memoir and one man show on Broadway, Springsteen has explained how his dad was his biggest hero and his greatest foe. His musical dreams clashed with the patriarch’s blue-collar existence and failed dreams. Here, the script has that come across in a subtle manner that sings true. Nell Williams as love interest Eliza is a firebrand whenever she’s on-screen, as is Hayley Atwell, Javed’s teacher. The rest of the cast includes Rob Brydon, Dean-Charles Chapman, Tara Divina, Meera Ganatra, David Hayman, Nikita Mehta, and Aaron Phagura, all of whom make contributions with their limited screen time. They are each a part of the chords that help hold the picture together.
Filmmaker Gurinder Chadha, known for her crowdpleaser “Bend It Like Beckham,” has outdone herself here with a real cinematic gem. The script – penned with Paul Mayeda Berges and the aforementioned Manzoor – is full of charm, as well as homages to Springsteen. Javed’s struggles with his father resemble Springsteen’s. Subtle elements like this make the film more than just a simple crowd-pleaser, while the looming presence of the National Front makes the movie far more timely. In terms of Chadha’s direction, it’s simple but comes alive when the songs enter the fray. In particular, the music video type sequences, like when Javed and his friends sing “Born to Run,” are stand up and cheer moments. Insistent that their classmates experience Springsteen, they sneak into the school radio station and play the record. As the student body experiences the song, they run through the building, dancing and singing along, before breaking free into the town. It’s pure joy to watch.
It’s not just the music where the filmmakers excel. The Conservative leadership of Britain’s then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is also vividly depicted. In particular, a shot of Javed looking at the end of a Neo-Nazi march with a Thatcher campaign ad in the distance is not just evocative of the clashes in the store, both in society along with Javed’s family, but timely as well. Chadha, along with Berges and Manzoor, find the modern-day relevance in what otherwise would simply have been a quasi-period piece. It’s yet another example of what makes the film so special.
“Blinded by the Light” reaches greatness by celebrating music as well as everyday life. Moreover, it’s when the two meet that the movie escalates to its full potential and most exhilarating. Javed first hearing “The Promised Land” and screaming out the lyrics will resonate with those who remember first discovering The Boss. The moments where he sees the prudent words from a Springsteen song dance around him bring to life not just the lyrics, but the emotions within them. When he breaks into song, as if driven to turn his life into a musical or a music video, Javed is not just fully embracing the music, but coming into his own. These moments happen during mundane parts of his life, whether it be a lecture from his father, sitting alone in his room, or just at school. There’s a gentle profoundness to these sequences that Chadha and company capture perfectly. She puts you in those moments in such a way that Javed’s life could just as easily be your own.
Fans of Bruce Springsteen will absolutely love this film. What’s more, even if you couldn’t care less about The Boss, this is still a delightful movie for the final, wistful days of summer. A wonderful depiction of coming of age in the ’80s, as well as figuring out exactly how much like/different from their father a son should be, “Blinded by the Light” does everything right. Javed’s personal growth and discovery of his identity provide an apt tribute to the lasting presence that Springsteen has on his fans. With a pitch-perfect soundtrack, Springsteen is not just celebrated as a musician, but also as an ideal. This will stand tall as one of the crowning works of 2019. “Blinded by the Light” hits every note with the confidence of an ace musician, crafting a soaring delight for fans and audiences alike.