Blinded by the Light (2019) – dir. Gurhinder Chadha

I will never forget being 14 years old, and listening to “Brothers on a Hotel Bed” all the way through for the first time. My mother had bought me Death Cab for Cutie’s Plans a few years earlier as an Easter present. I had never listened to the whole thing all the way through–only the singles “Soul Meets Body” and “Crooked Teeth.” But there I was, late in my freshman year of high school. A depressed and confused kid. I wish I knew why I decided to listen to a song I’d always skipped, but once Jason McGerr’s eccentric and hypnotic drum pattern, I was taken by the track’s atmospheric and impossibly morose grip. And Death Cab for Cutie has pretty much been my favorite band since. I chased every song I could. Devoured every cover and deep cut. Sought out any explanation for Ben Gibbard’s verbose, often arcane lyrics. Their melodic, moody, intellectually sad veneer were perfect for the soft, geeky kid I was, one that opened up the world, one that might not speak as loudly as before, but that still holds a place in my heart.

Anyone with a teenage musical love knows that no affection persists as deeply. They teach us, they entertain us, they comfort us. Their songs are the ones we play for ourselves at our highest and lowest. Certainly, Gurhinder Chandha understands what this is like. After all, this is the crux of her film. Blinded by the Light is, of course, more than a glorified love letter to the artists who enrich our lives and inform us in our youths. And while Blinded by the Light occasionally veers into a prolonged commercial for a greatest hits collection of Bruce Springsteen songs, Chandha’s Sundance surprise has so much more on her mind, in this delightful adolescent ode by way of the Boss from Asbury Park, New Jersey.

Javed (Viveik Kalra) comes from a fairly typical immigrant household. He is a Muslim growing up in the late 80s, during Britain’s Thatcher era. And Javed’s town of Luton is not all that different from the U.S. today. Well-paying jobs are hard to come by. Islamophobia is alive and well, not to mention anti-immigrant sentiment. Javed is expected to attend college, so he can head off to University. Deep down, he wants to be a writer, but Javed’s father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) wants Javed to do something more practical. Malik doesn’t need Javed to be a doctor, but perhaps at least a lawyer. He also tells Javed to “follow the Jews,” as they seem to know a thing or two about success. Meanwhile, Javed writes politically-charged lyrics for his best friend Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman), an aspiring new wave artist, whose commitment to the scene marks the beginning of a separation from Javed.

Javed has a tough time finding anyone to connect with. His English teacher sees talent in him, but writing isn’t an option. Eventually, a Sikh classmate Roops (Aaron Phagura) takes pity on the struggling Javed by lending Javed his tapes of Born in the U.S.A. and Darkness on the Edge of Town. By this point, Springsteen is somewhat on the downswing–during his Tunnel of Love era, which has seen critical reappraisal since, but marks the tail-end of his legendary stretch of classic records. Springsteen, on the surface, represents an old-fashioned Americana aesthetic, one that flies in the face of the futuristic sensibilities of Cutting Crew or Duran Duran. But after a blow-up with his family, Javed gives Born in the U.S.A. and is immediately hooked on “Dancing in the Dark.” Javed busts moves to his Walkman in the middle of his neighborhood street, and is renewed. He reinvents himself, and goes for what he wants.

Of course, Chaha, no stranger to stories of Asian expatriates, manages to carve out, if not a totally unique story, then one with a sense of genuine identity. Malik is demanding, and his rigidness is only exacerbated when he’s laid off from his plant job after 17 years of employment there. He defied his own parents, taking his young wife and himself away from their family in Pakistan to England, for a better life. And yet, he can’t provide for his family for most of the film, and projects his own fears onto Javed, perpetually reminding Javed of the importance of finding a good, stable job. Of course, this isn’t just about taking care of others; Malik knows that Javed, being Pakistani, needs to be exemplary. Being hard-working or talented is not enough. Because white folks will always look down on people like Javed and his family, he needs to put in far more effort to prove himself.

Now, Blinded by the Light is largely based off of co-writer and journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, and his affinity for Springsteen. Yet, the film manages to hit every predictable beat of this familiar story–about the obedient child finding their own path through art. Most recently, John Carney found a bona fide classic in this story with Sing Street–another British film about rebellion through music. And because the film, save for some cuts early on, is exclusively Springsteen music, Blinded by the Light is mere centimeters from being saccharine enough to give one a tummy ache. But because this comes from a place of real understanding, and because the story is so lived-in and specific, Blinded by the Light is often blissfully charming–the highlight being a set piece set to “Born to Run.”

Blinded by the Light does ultimately pick formula over a more courageous path–even if the story is based in someone’s experiences, the movie doesn’t have to be. The ending tracks, but feels a little too neat. And as much voice as the film tries to give to certain characters–particularly the women–everything works out for Javed, more or less. But Blinded by the Light explores one’s need for identity very honestly, even at the film’s most trite or unimaginative. This is a film that lives and dies on love. One that isn’t totally unaware of the dangers of the outside world–even if those dangers are presented rather simplistically. Sometimes Blinded by the Light is a little uneven or rushed, but the energy and affection at the heart of Javed’s story is just too infectious to deny.

Rating – 8.4/10

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