There are crowd-pleasers that tug on the heartstrings. Then there’s Blinded by the Light, a film which tugs on them so hard, you’ll leave a screening with an empty chest cavity.
The coming-of-age drama is based on the story of British journalist and life-long Bruce Springsteen obsessive Sarfraz Manzoor (who co-wrote the script). A terrific Viveik Kalra stars as Javed, a slightly fictionalised teenage version of the writer. Aspiring to be a poet in Thatcher’s Britain, his stern traditional father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) – who moved the family to Luton from Pakistan for a better life – believes it’s not a career, pushing his kid towards being a doctor or a lawyer.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Malik has just been laid off, putting a massive strain on him and his family. Meanwhile, in scenes which sadly feel relevant today, there’s a rise in xenophobia courtesy of the fascist far-right National Front skinheads. One particularly grim moment sees a group of white teens urinating through the letterbox of a Pakistani friend of Malik. This is such a regular occurrence that the mate’s family are forced to keep a special plastic mat by the front door.
All this combined leaves Javed feeling hopeless. However, one day his pal Roops (Aaron Phagura, charming) passes him on two Bruce Springsteen cassettes. Wandering out into a storm after a fight with his family, he falls in love listening to the tracks of Darkness on the Edge of Town. Despite being oceans apart, The Boss’ lyrics about the working-class struggle and that urge to escape a dreary existence feel like they were written for Javed. Realising people can take their anger and sadness and turn it into something beautiful, the teen decides to follow his new idol’s lead.
All of this unfolds in a fairly standard manner, touching upon every coming-of-age genre trope there is. There’s a romance with an edgy girl (Nell Williams), an inspirational teacher (Hayley Atwell), moments where Javed quotes The Boss to help him out of certain situations and most creaky of all a writing competition where the prize is a trip to New Jersey – home of Springsteen! What are the chances our protagonist wins and that his Dad will finally respect his son’s wishes?
On top of this, at two hours – the movie feels quite long. It’s bogged down in subplots, some of which go nowhere. This includes the aforementioned romance or Javed falling out with his white friend Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) over nothing except maybe to add some stakes.
However, while you could watch Blinded by the Light and roll your eyes at all the predictable beats it hits, it’s still emotionally affecting. Director Gurinder Chadha’s evocation of 80’s Britain is palpable, capturing the drab dreariness of Luton’s council estates – one’s given an unsettling edge on account of hate speech graffitied on the area’s walls and the streets filled with anti-immigration rallies.
You completely understand why Javed would take so strongly to Springsteen’s music. It offers a brief release from the starkness of his living situation. Walking down the street, he risks being spat at. Meanwhile, at home he’s told to put his pen down because it’s pointless. It’s only when he has The Boss blaring in his ears, he feels he can escape – born to run. Indeed, Chadha shoots these moments where Javed listens to Springsteen – specific tracks which help inform the narrative similar to the recent Rocketman – like music videos. Lyrics are scribbled across the screen. Cast members sing and dance. You can’t help but get caught up in the ecstasy of these fantastical passages.
It’s these euphoric moments that leave you teary eyed at the emotional scenes and pumping your fist during the inevitable happy ending. All in all, Blinded by the Light will either have you cringing at its mawkish sentimentality or grinning for the same reason. I did a bit of both. But it did make me want to throw on some Bruce though.