What was the song that saved you? For me, it was the one that told me I wasn’t alone. Born and raised in a small steel town, I was too loud, too different, mocked for my interests, the way I dressed, and the way I talked. I was a freak. And then I heard the scratchy, lullaby-like intro to the eels’ “Novocaine for the Soul,” and I felt seen, claimed, saved. Their album Beautiful Freak became my anthem and my armor. I listened to it every morning as I prepared for school, and I steeled myself for another day in a town that made me but wasn’t made for me. The eels gave me a vision of a place beyond, a promised land where this beautiful freak would find where she fit in. Discovering that felt like salvation. Such a moment plays at the heart of Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded By The Light. Based on Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir Greetings from Bury Park, this tender and terrific musical offers the coming-of-age story of a Pakistani-British teen who found his identity and voice through the music of Bruce Springsteen.
In 1987 Luton, the cool teens are dressing like Michael Jackson, Wham, Flock of Seagulls, and Salt-N-Pepa. The blue-collar rock of Springsteen is considered dad music. But not to Javed (Viveik Kalra). His Muslim family is deeply traditional, meaning his immigrant father is the ruler of the house and has little patience for British culture, his son’s interest in writing poems, much less his obsession with an American rock star in blue jeans. As local neo-Nazis vandalizing Pakistani homes with spray-painted slurs and the local mosque with a severed pig’s head, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) wants his only son to keep his head down and his mind on preparing for a safe and stable career, like accounting or real estate. But in Thatcher’s Britain, unemployment is on the rise, as are Javed’s frustrations with his father’s limited view of his future.
Javed’s rebellion begins with two cassette tapes, lent by his Sikh friend Roops (Aaron Phagura), who pairs his traditional turban with a leather jacket, blue jeans, and an array of Bruce tees. Played through a battered Walkman, Springsteen’s lyrics swirl around Javed’s bedroom in playfully animated text. His words are projected against brick walls and rip through the air, giving voice to the anger and passion of this shy boy who runs from spitting skinheads and shrinks from his demanding father. Javed begins to quote Springsteen like some do holy books, as a source of guidance and inspiration. He plasters his room in posters of The Boss and swaps out his polo shirts and bland beige jacket for white tees, sleeveless flannel button-downs, and a snug denim jacket. And he finds allies in his literature teacher (Hayley Atwell) and spunky love interest (Nell Williams), who both encourage him in his own writing. But while Javed begins to dream of rock concerts, college, and a life far away from his suffocating town, tension grows as a collision with his father’s expectations becomes imminent.
Like director Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham, Blinded By The Light explores the challenges of a teenager torn between two cultures. Tension sparks as Javed’s older sister scorn his embracing of Springsteen as a rejection of his roots. Though Javed first uses Springsteen’s music as a wall to shield him from the slings and arrows of his day-to-day, the music eventually becomes a bridge to better understanding those around him. In one pivotal scene, he accompanies his younger sister (Nikita Mehta) to a “daytimer,” a rave held before school so Pakistani students can rebelliously let loose with their parents none the wiser. Looking around a club filled with peers swirling in sequins and saris, Javed is at first bewildered as they are in thrall by the music he’s shunned. Then he puts on his headphones, and we hear what he does. Now, the whole club seems to be dancing to Springsteen, and Javed gets it. The music may not be the same, but the way it makes them feel is. It sees them. It frees them.
Blinded By The Light is at its best in its musical moments. Chadha leans into Javed’s perspective not only with lyrics buzzing around his world but also with grounded yet sensational song numbers. In one sequence, Javed’s headphones give him the support and confidence to serenade his crush with “Thunder Road.” One by one the shoppers and salespeople of the flea market join him in a rousing sing-along. Later, he will play “Born to Run” over the school’s loudspeaker, and as he and Roops race through the halls, the music follows them out of the school and into the streets where buskers and “tramps” gleefully join their dance. In these moments, the film is alive, radiating with emotional authenticity and cinematic splendor. But the bits that tie the song numbers together are a bit stringy.
Despite repeatedly stating how important his younger sister is to him, she’s barely a part of the film. His older sister even less so! Likewise, the thread about his friendship with white neighbor Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) is wonkily woven in. The film begins with the boys at age ten, seemingly setting up to parallel their lives. But Matt vanishes from the plot so often, it’s easy to forget he was ever there. And while Roops has a mischievous charm and a dashing grin, the script never gives him much depth. The same is true for Javed’s teacher, girlfriend, and mother, who get little definition beyond adoring him. In a film that’s meant to express how a teen boy learned to look beyond himself and recognize his role in a community, Blinded By The Light has only a shallow interest in the characters within that community.
Though clumsy in structure and skimpy on character-development, Blinded By The Light is a sensationally good time. Kalra is a captivating leading man, bringing a wide-eyed optimism to Javed that instantly makes audiences hope and fear for him. Witnessing his journey scared boy grows into a brave man is exhilarating. But the music is the best bit, elevating every sequence in which it swells and soars. It doesn’t much matter if you’re as into Bruce as Javed is, because this deeply charming musical will make you convert to the church of Springsteen. If not because the music speaks to you personally, then because we—like Javed at the daytime rave—can see the power it possesses for another. And it’s positively rapturous!
All in all, Blinded By The Light is a heartwarming and rollicking delight with a soundtrack that demands to be played loud and proud.
Blinded By The Light played at the Bentonville Film Festival ahead of hitting theaters August 14.