‘Blinded by the Light': Movie Review
There's a reason most of our favorite music is ingrained into our minds, as well as into our souls, when we're teens. Life is too messy to figure out at that point, with puberty and other things getting in the way of sensible thinking. Let's face it – it's difficult for anyone, let alone somebody going through adolescence, to logically put thoughts and words together sometimes.
That's why singers and their songs have been doing all that work for us for as long as any of us can remember. Can't verbalize how you think about that school crush? No problem: Somebody has written a song that explains exactly how you feel. Angry? Bored? Sad? Exhilarated? Angryboredsadexhilarated all at the same time? There's a song for that too.
And just like any art form, some musicians connect better and more often than others. It may not be easy to relate your life to one of Captain Beefheart's abstract word collages, but what working-class teen, slaving away behind a fast-food grill, hasn't felt at least some connection with Bruce Springsteen's born-to-run blue-collar protagonists?
Springsteen's influence reaches all the way to a British teenager of Pakistani descent in the movie Blinded by the Light, linking the runaway dreams of stuck-in-the-swamps New Jersey to Thatcher-era Luton, England.
It's there that Javed (played by newcomer Viveik Kalra) becomes obsessed with Springsteen's music – a lyrical paradise away from the economic, family and racial burdens facing him in 1987. Blinded by the Light doesn't stray too far from the ordinary. It feels like a slice of real life with small dramas, and that's no surprise: The film is based on Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir Greetings From Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Roll. And like the best Springsteen music, the movie offers a sort of salvation through its songs.
The story starts on Javed's 10th birthday in 1980, when he's re-gifted a diary from his best friend. Fast-forward seven years and he's writing lyrics for his friend's band, tasked with coming up with a hit pop single but all he manages are songs about the Cold War. All around him is music by the Pet Shop Boys, whom he likes, and other synth-based acts his friend says are the future. But on the first day of school Javed accidentally bumps into a fellow Pakistani student (Aaron Phagura) who introduces him to "the Boss."
That pivotal year brings other changes too, including a teacher who encourages Javed's writing (Hayley Atwell), a politically active classmate named Eliza (Nell Williams) who shows interest in him and a newly unemployed father (Kulvinder Ghir), who collects whatever money Javed makes for the family. One particularly dismal night he hears Springsteen for the first time – "Dancing in the Dark" – and the words immediately connect with Javed as they literally swirl around him in one of director Gurinder Chadha's most striking sequences.
Suddenly, Javed is quoting Springsteen lyrics every minute of the day, and his own writing – in the form of poems and an essay in the school newspaper – grows sharper and more personal, to the point where he's offered an internship-like position at the local paper. He begins dressing like Springsteen, fighting racists with Springsteen lyrics and generally starts finding his life, and all of its burdens, a little more rosy.
Not so surprisingly, Springsteen's songs are all over the movie and serve as the soundtrack to the standout scenes: when Javed woos Eliza at an outdoor market with an impromptu version of "Thunder Road" that turns into a singalong set piece; a clash between racists and protesters underscored by "Jungleland"; and a payoff montage (which we won't spoil) played out over "Blinded by the Light."
Blinded by the Light is best when it's basically a celebration of Springsteen's music and its power to motivate, or, in Javed's case, boost confidence. The various sidetracks involving Javed's family members add little to the narrative (though his dad's constant referring to Springsteen as a "Jewish singer" shows the divide). Along the way, it's also a routine coming-of-age story, a tale about following your dreams and a semi-musical where characters break into song-and-dance routines. It's hokey, sentimental and a pretty deliberate feel-good movie that's probably less bearable if you're not a Springsteen fan.
But it's hard not to get caught up in Javed's trajectory on his path to adulthood. Would he have gotten there without music? Probably. Would he have ended up the same person? Doubtful. Blinded by the Light is as much about the universal power of a well-written song as it is about one young man who was tired and bored with himself, and needed just a little help.