Blinded by the Light deserves to walk in the sun
The day I saw Blinded by the Light, I also happened to listen to an episode of The Anthropocene Reviewed podcast about Halley’s Comet (and Cholera, but that’s not totally relevant). Likely the most famous non-planetary body in our solar system, Halley’s Comet returns into earthly view every 75 years or so, and the discussion of the comet’s history already had me thinking about the cyclical nature of history. But then I was watching this movie in my lifelong home of Philadelphia, intensely relating to a 1987 Pakistani-English teenager and his connection to Bruce Springsteen’s albums. That music, of course, was recorded much closer to where I was sitting than the film’s setting of Luton, England. Part of that connection is simply the power of cinema, connecting an audience and story across time and space in order to deepen our connection to the world. But it helps that I’m a lifelong Bruce Sprinsteeen fan.
I grew up in a Springsteen household. Beyond debating with my parents about the best Born to Run track, his words and lyrics spoke to me and how I felt about growing up. And this has continued throughout my life. With The Rising after September 11, Springsteen helped me process my emotions around that attack while being a high school student. In college I would walk around blasting Darkness on the Edge of Town when I was blue and trying to force “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” onto my uninitiated friends. Bruce Springsteen is probably the most important musical figure in my life not named John, Paul, George, or Ringo. This is where I am coming from vis-à-vis my deep connection to Blinded by the Light.
Javid (Viveik Kalra) is a sixteen year old Pakistani-English boy starting college in the depressed town of Luton in 1987. Like the entire area, Javid’s family is struggling financially. His father (Kulvinder Ghir) works at a Vauxhall factory while his mother (Meera Ganatra) mends clothes to help make ends meet. His sisters also contribute. Javid, however, has a passion for writing. Poems about the Cold War, Margaret Thatcher, and other issues fill his bedroom walls. But he also tries to write lyrics for the synth band his mate, Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman), is in. Two significant events happen to him on his first day of school. His new English teacher, Ms. Clay (Hayley Attwell), encourages his love of writing, and he meets Roops (Aaron Phagura), a Seikh boy who introduces him to Bruce Springsteen. As Javid faces the rise of the National Front in his town, economic struggles, his crush on classmate Eliza (Nell Williams), further economic insecurity, and his dream of being a writer, he falls further and further into an obsession with Springsteen’s music as a means of escape, hope, processing his emotions, and a handbook to life.
I have no doubt that some people who watch this movie will find it absurdly corny. Blinded by the Light is exceedingly earnest; it doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve so much as shouts its feelings from the rooftops. Beyond using Springsteen’s music, a major reason I connected with the film was Javid’s character and Viveik Kalra’s performance. Kalra perfectly captures the sweet innocence of a shy, socially awkward boy. So when he is intensely feeling something, it is extremely easy to empathize. He wants the same thing that many of us wanted at 16: autonomy, being seen as cool, and romance. All of this, combined with a working class upbringing is why Springsteen’s music resonates. Javid and Roops understand exactly what it means when The Boss sings about trying to get out of a broken town as a means of escaping the hand life has dealt them.
But there’s a different sort of resonance when Javid listens to “Dancing in the Dark” than there is for Springsteen’s typical American fans. When Bruce sings “I check my look in the mirror, I want to change my clothes, my hair, my face,” it’s not only the normal teenage insecurity that Javid feels, but racial insecurity. His family worries he is becoming too Anglicized, yet he will always be an outsider for being Pakistani. Part of Springsteen’s message is, to at least try to stand up for yourself no matter how much life tries to grind you down. But this individualism is also at odds with Javid’s family’s values. Blinded by the Light isn’t a simple story of enlightenment by way of Springsteen. Javid still has to reconcile his newfound confidence and individualism with his family, which gives this film a complexity it would otherwise lack.
One of the most heartfelt aspects of the film is the relationship between Javid and his father, Malik. It would have been an easy choice to make Malik the villain of the story, the obstacle Javid has to overcome, but he isn’t. Director Gurinder Chadha shows as much empathy for the adults in the film as she does for the teenagers, which places it above other teen angst films. This push and pull between fathers and sons is yet another way time goes through cycles. Javid is trying to become a man in his own right, trying to find his own identity in similar ways that his father did when he was younger. Malik is a hardworking man who has to make hard choices because he loves his family so much. He has pride in being able to support them financially, and over the course of the film loses some of his dignity. And he feels like his son is pulling away from him in ways he can’t understand. In other words, he’s exactly the kind of character that Springsteen writes about.
Chadha fully embraces the period trappings, the anxiety of some of the nationalistic furvor in favor of Brexit is certainly present in the film. Cycles of history again. As Javid’s older neighbor, Mr. Evans (David Hayman) shares, he fought the war to stop facism, and here it is again on his doorstep. These scenes don’t pull any punches, and while they certainly occur in a way to maximize the dramatic tension, they are so well threaded through the film that they never feel artificial, but more of a creeping dread about to hit a boiling point.
And even though there’s a lot of thematic and emotional weight embedded within it, I can’t emphasize enough how much Blinded by the Light is an absolute joy to watch. And while this may sound like a cheesy cliche, it celebrates life in spite of hardship in a similar way to Springsteen’s music. Many of his songs are told from the points of view of the people he writes about, placing the listener in their shoes. This film exemplifies this in telling Javid’s story. It’s not holding up his family’s economic and emotional struggles as something that makes their story worth telling, but embeds the audience in their lives for a brief window of time so that we can feel both their hardship and their love for each other. Chadha also humor to endear us to the characters. Music of course, is at the center of this, as some of the best scenes in the film are musical-esque with characters breaking out into song, representing those moments when only music can capture your feelings in the moment.
I know that my personal connection to Springsteen’s music is a huge part of why I loved this movie so much, but I still think those who aren’t die hard fans will still find much to love. Blinded by the Light is for anyone who has ever heard a song and felt like the songwriter was speaking directly to them. Another way that Javid’s specific experience feels universal is the feeling of falling into a new obsession. The way that Javid and Roops form their friendship around their love of Springsteen reminds me of the friends I’ve made bonding over similar interests or something they shared with me. And the charming way they attempt to proselytize their newfound savior is familiar to anyone who finds a passion that is just out of step with their teenage peers.
Blinded by the Light is my favorite movie of the year so far. Like Javid (and Sarfraz Manzoor, whose memoir Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Roll inspired the film), it binds itself to the messages of Springsteen’s music, creating resonance by embracing the emotional truth at its core.
Blinded by the Light opens in Philly theaters today.