Gurinder Chadha’s follow-up to the Delhi-set Viceroy’s House brings us a little closer to home – Luton, in fact – with this moving real-life tale of a British Asian teen in 1987 who pursues his dreams with a shot in the arm from the music of Bruce Springsteen. 17-year-old Javed is studying for his A-Levels, helping his family through tough financial circumstances, and dreaming of becoming a writer. Based on a memoir by writer Sarfraz Manzoor (also co-writer of the screenplay), Blinded by the Light does an excellent job of contrasting Manzoor’s specific circumstances with the universal power of timeless music.
On the night of the great storm of 1987, Javed discovers Springsteen in a transformational sequence scored to Dancing in the Dark and shot with frenetic energy. It’s electrifying, and Chadha nails the excitement of discovering art which truly speaks to you for the first time. Back at college, Javed finds the courage to share his poems with his teacher Miss Clay (Hayley Atwell – basically, Miss Honey if she had to deal with teenagers instead of Matilda). She encourages his talent, while classmate Eliza (Nell Williams) shows Javed the power of political engagement – they share a tender romance. Aaron Phagura as friend Roops, who gives Javed the gift of Springsteen to begin with, is also another great discovery.
Meanwhile, Javed’s mother and father are struggling with money after Mr. Khan is laid off from his job at the local Vauxhall plant. It’s a heartbreaking storyline elevated by incredible work from Kulvinder Ghir and Meera Ganatra, as two people in love slowly being crushed under the thumb of Thatcherism. Chadha, Paul Mayeda Berges and Sarfraz Manzoor make no secret of their political convictions in Blinded by the Light, and it’s refreshing to see a British film handle the realities of working-class life – like Springsteen himself – without flinching.
As Javed’s Americanised outlook on life becomes more difficult to ignore, and his father becomes more frustrated by Javed’s (unprofitable) writing, the stage is set for a confrontation. The matter-of-fact representation of the open racism experienced by British Asians (a heartbreaking scene sees the Khans’ friends mopping up after a kid who has pissed through their letterbox) only adds to the tension in Javed’s household.
But the power of music lightens the film’s outlook. There are a couple of moments in which the energy of Springsteen’s music explodes out into the film’s reality, and Blinded by the Light almost threatens to become a ‘proper’ musical. These song and dance sequences have a freewheeling, spit-and-sawdust energy that doesn’t even try to mimic the choreography of, say, Rocketman – because this film knows it’s a different animal altogether. John Carney’s underrated Sing Street is a better comparison. Seeing Born to Run or Thunder Road brought to life on a market stall, or at the Arndale Centre, is an enjoyably uncanny experience.
One of the film’s best running jokes is that, even more than 30 years ago, Bruce Springsteen (‘dad music’) was considered deeply uncool music for a teen to enjoy. Fittingly, it’s a deeply uncool film – Rob Brydon-with-a-mullet uncool – that wins us over with heart and big smiles, and without cynicism. I dare anybody to roll their eyes at the film’s stirring climax, which joins together all of these ideas about identity, ambition and everyday people getting by.
There’s a sequence in which Javed sings along to a tape of Springsteen on the TV, in his own accent, and I realised that Blinded by the Light depicts – more vividly than any film I can remember – the way in which we consume art that speaks to us. We play it to death, we write down the lyrics, we apply its lessons to our lives and we use it as fuel for our own ambitions. Eventually, we might even outgrow it and find a new obsession. Not that Javed’s real-life counterpart does – a delightful end credits sequence reveals that Manzoor has seen Springsteen 150 times in concert. Blinded by the Light is a fitting tribute to the power of dreams, and a joyfully told story.