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Review: Blinded by the Light

August 16, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Named for the first single off of Bruce Springsteen’s 1973 debut album Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., Blinded by the Light tells the story of an unlikely Springsteen fan who uses the music of The Boss to help him find his own place in the world.

Based on the life of Sarfraz Manzoor, who helped adapt his own memoir Greetings from Bury Park for the screen, the film takes place in the late 1980s in the small English town of Luton, and follows a British-Pakistani teenager named Javed (Viveik Kalra).

Being one of the few non-white people in the town, Javed faces racist taunts on his walks to and from school, and his home life is far from easy. His father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) has just been laid off from his job at an auto manufacturing plant, leaving his mother Noor (Meera Ganatra) struggling to support the family through her sewing and repair work.

Malik is very traditional, and expects Javed to study hard and get a good job, and doesn’t approve of the fact that his son writes poetry and wants to study English, with dreams of being a writer. But Javed’s world changes when a Sikh kid at school named Roops (Aaron Phagura), one of the few other visible minorities, hands him a pair of cassette tapes from an American rockstar named Bruce Springsteen. In his bedroom that night following a fight with his family, Javed pops one of the tapes into his walkman, puts his headphones on, and hears the iconic words of “Dancing in the Dark.” And in that moment, everything changes.

“I wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face,” Springsteen sings on the track, and Javed knows exactly how he feels. By some miracle, the words of this American rocker from New Jersey, who sings about being “Born in the U.S.A.” no less, are able to resonate with a Pakistani kid growing up in England. This music is different from the synth pop that his childhood friend Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) and the other kids at school are into. It’s raw and real, capturing the feeling of living a broken life and yearning for change, and it automatically helps Javed’s world open up.

The music gives him the courage to pursue his own dreams, instead of just what his father wants for him, and he also starts going out with a girl in his class named Eliza (Nell Williams), a budding political activist who spends her days protesting Thatcherism and apartheid in South Africa. While Bruce is not exactly considered “cool” by the other kids – it’s the music that Matt’s father (Rob Brydon) listens to, after all – the working class ethos of Springsteen’s lyrics speaks directly to Javed’s own experience as the member of an immigrant family struggling to make ends meet while living in a decrepit small town, and the lyrics give voice to his feelings of wanting to escape.

Directed by Gurinder Chadha, working in a very similar key to her 2002 breakout hit Bend It Like Beckham, Blinded by the Light is a wonderful film that explores the rock and roll rebellion of trying to break free from a very traditional upbringing and find your own place in the world, all set to a rousing soundtrack of classic Springsteen songs. The film does a beautiful job of capturing the feeling of hearing a life-changing song for the first time, and key words from the lyrics are literally written out on screen as Javed listens to the music. After “Dancing in the Dark” rocks his world, “Promised Land” makes him head out into the night in the middle of a raging storm, the lyrics appearing on a wall behind him.

These stylistic touches work well within the film to help visualize the impact that this music has upon our main character. Chadha stages several soaring musical numbers, including a liberating sequence when Javed and Roops hijack the local college radio station to blast “Born to Run,” which leads to a literal dance through the streets of Luton. It’s scenes like this that capture the feeling of breaking free that Springsteen’s music is able to instil in us as listeners. In another fantastical sequence, Javed listens to “Thunder Road” on his headphones in the middle of the street, and it turns into a production number with countless others joining in.

Yes, Blinded by the Light is a feel good movie, but there is also an undercurrent of sadness to it and the film doesn’t shy away from exploring some very serious themes. The tense political climate of 1987 is a major influence on the story, with Margaret Thatcher serving her third term in the UK and Ronald Reagan nearing the end of his presidency. The working class are protesting against austerity measures and the loss of good jobs, thanks to trade deals that allowed corporations to move manufacturing work overseas, leading to a renewed sense of resentment towards immigrants that has eery similarities to what we are seeing now.

The film tackles racism in some really interesting and powerful ways, including the use of a National Front rally as the backdrop for one of its most stirring dramatic sequences. Racist taunts of “go home” are a commonly heard refrain. A pig’s head gets hung up at the local Mosque, a direct threat to Muslims in the community, including Javed’s own family. Another Pakistani family in the neighbourhood has learned to cover the carpet in their front hall with plastic so it’s easier to clean up when the local boys repeatedly piss through their mail slot.

And yet, somehow, even with all of this very real ugliness on display, Blinded by the Light is ultimately a joyous film. The main message behind it, if you want to narrow it down to just one, is how music has the power to reach across continents and cultures to connect us through universal truths. We all struggle, we all have hardships in our lives, and this is a big part of why Springsteen’s music has endured for several decades. Music helps us process the pain, and gives voice to this struggle. Take, for example, a moment when a group of racist kids force Javed and Roops to move seats in a restaurant. They respond by quoting the lyrics of “Badlands,” suddenly feeling empowered to actually fight back.

By the time the title track finally plays in Blinded by the Light, it’s a moment of such jubilation that it’s hard not to get choked up with tears of joy. For the sake of full disclosure, I should note that I’m also a longtime fan of The Boss, so I guess it’s no surprise that I loved this film. Telling a story that manages to feel both universal as well as very personal and specific, Blinded by the Light is ultimately a delightful and very moving tribute to the music of Bruce Springsteen, with a touching story about finding your place as an outsider.

Blinded by the Light is now playing in theatres across Canada.

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