Inspired by journalist Sarfraz Manzoor’s (who also co-wrote the screenplay) autobiography, Blinded by the Light introduces us to Javed (Viveik Kalra), a teenager of Pakistani descent growing up in 1980’s small-town England. Between the effects of the Thatcher government on employment, rising anti-Muslim attitudes, and his controlling (though well-intentioned) father (Kulvinder Ghir), Javed finds himself feeling more and more isolated from the world around him. Things begin to change when Javed gets his hands on a Bruce Springsteen cassette and finds himself revolutionized by his blue-collar anthems.
On the nose social commentary and predictable daddy-doesn’t-get-me melodrama are the orders of the day. But as familiar (and yes, a little cheesy) as Blinded by the Light can be, the charm of seeing Javed come out of his shell and nerd out to an icon half a world away can’t help but bring out a smile. As eye rolling as it sounds to have Javed aggressively reciting lyrics to disarm a gang of skinheads, the extent to which his obsession has empowered him is just too damn sweet to be pessimistic about.
Its success comes from director and co-writer Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham, Bride & Prejudice), who smartly focuses on how universal certain themes and experiences can be. On paper, a Muslim introvert from Luton and a New Jersey rockstar have very little in common, but as lyrics about disenfranchised youth and working class woes literally swirl around Javed’s head, it’s plain to see how easily Bruce’s experience would resonate with him, and by extension Javed to the audience.
The film shares Springsteen’s accessible man-on-the-street perspective, both in its focus on Javed and in some of the stylistic flourishes. There are a few sequences that let “The Boss” play out to a Javed-starring music video, each feeling like a low-budget time capsule to a time when such videos were a little less refined. Sometimes this works great and emphasizes the film’s teenage charm, but other times seem out of place and are at best a distraction. One scene in particular is very unclear whether we are watching an actual moment with the characters or a fantasy in Javed’s head, which might be a fun exercise if intentional, but the result feels a bit like film students running around with a camera to see what sticks. Given the subject, Chadha can get away with a little bit of rock n roll improv, but working some of the heavy-handed material with a more deliberate hand would have helped cut through some of the movie’s cheese.
It’s also a little odd that the film zeroes in on the same handful of Springsteen’s biggest hits. I get that it’s not a musical, but it still seems a little off to throw so much love at the man and not go further than what you’d see on a jukebox.
In fairness, the story is less a celebration of the artist and more of the effect his art can have on an individual. To that end, the goofy enthusiasm Kalra injects into Javed as he goes from sad sack teenager to shameless fanboy is infectious. He’s helped along the way by a strong performance by Ghir as his father and the always-charming Hayley Atwell (in an unfortunately familiar role as the inspiring English teacher), but it’s Kalra’s movie and whether or not it reaches you comes down to how much you come to care for his character. For some, Blinded by the Light will be a tad cookie-cutter in both plot and execution, but less cynical viewers will find a warm coming-of-age story set against a tense (and infuriatingly still relevant) social landscape.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★☆☆
‘Blinded by the Light’ will be in Australian cinemas on October 24.