Blinded By The Light (2019)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
The first film Bruce Springsteen has approved and licensed his music for, Blinded by the Light is a crowd-pleasing film that will stir up excitement among fans of “The Boss.”
In his feature-film debut, Viveik Kalra captures the right innocence, enthusiasm, and charisma to the role that could make him a breakout star in 2019.
Based on a true story, this is a conventional “find your inner voice” movie, with elements of a movie musical spiked in.
Like much of director Gurinder Chadha’s work, Blinded by the Light hits its themes hard and squarely on-the-nose. At times this feels counter to the rebellious nature of the music being presented from Springsteen’s catalog.
If you have no appreciation for Bruce Springsteen’s music, Blinded by the Light may all seem a little bit silly.
Well-intentioned though this might be, there is a general predictability with all of this. Even with Springsteen’s music pushing us along, this is a movie we have seen many, many times before.
We all kind of know where we were when we heard our first Springsteen. For me, I was about 6 years old. Family room. My parents, devout country music fans and music lovers, brought home a 45 of “Hungry Heart,” which would become Bruce Springsteen’s first Top 5 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. Essentially, the only non-country music record in our stacks of vinyl and 45s, “Hungry Heart” was the coolest song I had ever heard at the time.
Later, in 1984, “Born in the U.S.A.” was everything to me when it was released, as I literally toggled back and forth between that record and Prince’s “Purple Rain” soundtrack when I eventually had my own turntable in my bedroom. I even performed as Bruce, in a school-wide talent show performance of “We Are The World” (don’t even ask…), and yeah, the white T-shirt was rolled up. Jeans were cuffed at the ankles.
For a lot of us, Bruce Springsteen was as unlikely a pop star as you could imagine, in a world with Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, and others. His messages of finding, pursuing, and never relenting on defining your place in a polarized America seemed to break through almost in spite of the more material nature of what was being pushed hard on MTV.
In Gurinder Chadha’s new film, Blinded by the Light, Springsteen’s inspirational lyrics and arena-rock ready anthems serve as kindling to the fires burning within British-Pakistani teenager Javed (Viveik Kalra) in 1987 England. A fledgling writer, who chooses poetry over his studies, he is at odds with the traditions of his family heritage and balled up in typical teenage angst of what he wants to do with his life.
When his friend Roops (Aaron Phagura) gives him a cassette tape of Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” album, praising the rocker incessantly, Javed, later, in a moment of frustration, pops Side One into his Walkman, puts headphones on, and nothing is ever the same again.
From there, Chadha’s film brings to life themes commonplace in Springsteen’s music.
A young man is lost and unsure what direction to take in life. Talented, if someone could just listen to what he has to say, he knows he can make a difference in the world and realize his dream. Life is a struggle for many and not everyone has an equal playing field to achieve success. Hopelessly in love, does his crush even know he exists? I know I can get out of this place and something better awaits me.
The screenplay, adapted from the true story of author and co-screenwriter Sarfraz Manzoor, brings all of these themes to life, then uses Springsteen’s musical library to punctuate the scenes as written. Sometimes, the songs seem an odd fit. Other times, they prove exhilarating.
In a standout moment, “Dancing in the Dark”, Springsteen’s biggest hit from the 1984 “Born in the U.S.A.” album, plays as Javed runs around at night, throughout his broken-down town of Luton. Lyrics animate, dance, and illustrate all around him on broken down buildings and elsewhere on screen. Another sequence finds a musical number break out, joyously, when “Born to Run” finds its way onto the airwaves of Javed and Roops’ school radio station.
Other positives begin to emerge in Javed’s life and Springsteen’s music draws him out of his reserved, quiet demeanor into someone seemingly more confident and proud.
It should be noted that though stilted and heavy-handed as this all may be, Chadha’s film is almost impossible to dislike. She has a keen sense of understanding the particulars of what makes an audience stay with a story. Javed is so gosh-darn likable, we root for him to use whatever means necessary (Springsteen, rebelliousness) to fulfill his goals and dreams.
On the flipside, Chadha also makes movies which, while they play well with audiences, are oftentimes desperately predictable and leave zero mystery to how a story will play out.
While Springsteen’s music is mostly used for great amplification, once we see the scope of Javed’s life and why Springsteen is going to matter so much to him, we know instantly where every plot point and every story beat will come from. This renders the uniqueness of the movie isolated to little more than trying to guess what song by “The Boss” will be used and when. The overall impact becomes stunted, the emotions less easy to come by, and the overall experience of watching Blinded by the Light is altered because the “surprises” within the movie are focused in the wrong place.
Still though, this was a lot of fun to watch. And audiences will enjoy seeing the spectacle of Blinded by the Light play out before them.
A British-Pakistani teenager, teetering on the verge of poverty, finds his inner voice through a distinctly American lens, via the words and melodies of Bruce Springsteen. Kalra’s breakout performance elevates the material; Springsteen’s music is custom-made for a platform like this, and Chadha’s tried-and-true approach to pleasing an audience makes this a somewhat slight, but thoughtful film audiences will, and should, embrace.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Meera Ganatra, Aaron Phagura, Dean-Charles Chapman, Nikita Mehta, Nell Williams, Tara Divina, Rob Brydon, Hayley Atwell.
Director: Gurinder Chadha
Written by: Paul Mayeda Berges, Gurinder Chadha, Sarfraz Manzoor
Adapted from the book “Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Roll” by Sarfraz Manzoor
Inspired by the words and music of Bruce Springsteen
Release Date: August 16, 2019
New Line Cinema/Warner Bros.