REVIEW: Blinded By the Light [2019]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 118 minutes
    Release Date: August 16th, 2019 (USA)
    Studio: New Line Cinema / Warner Bros.
    Director(s): Gurinder Chadha
    Writer(s): Paul Mayeda Berges, Gurinder Chadha & Sarfraz Manzoor / Bruce Springsteen (inspired by words and music)

They’re not brilliant, but they’re mine.

It was 1973 when Bruce Springsteen‘s debut album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. hit record stores—fourteen years before Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra) first heard his name. By then this teenage Pakistani in Luton, England was listening to current synth tracks with best friend Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) when his parents weren’t forcing their native country’s music upon him. Here he was a stranger in a familiar land dealing with a traditionalist family that worked as a collective, a racist National Front, and a dream of a writing career during a recession that saw millions unemployed under Margaret Thatcher’s reign. He was lost wandering between a life he didn’t want and another he couldn’t have when The Boss’ lyrics implored him to “take it” and “pay the price.”

The lesson learned is a universal one as it epitomizes what it means to be “saved” by art. Javed (and journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, who co-adapted his own memoir Greetings from Bury Park: Race. Religion. Rock ‘n’ Roll. alongside director Gurinder Chadha and collaborator Paul Mayeda Berges) isn’t necessarily touched by the music as much as what the lyrics say. So when Matt and others around him scoff at the mention of Springsteen (“My parents listen to him”), he and the Sikh friend (Aaron Phagura) who turned him onto Bruce realize they know something the rest simply don’t. To them the songs’ patriotism and Americana is merely a façade covering a battle cry for the little guys barely scraping by—those outsiders longing to discover they are not alone.

So while the trailers for Blinded by the Light focus on Javed’s awakening (philosophical, sexual, and otherwise) at the hands of this discography, it goes well beyond such generic adolescence-defining, coming-of-age tropes. His culture, family, victimhood, and aspirations all enter to ultimately be reinterpreted by the lyrics Chadha projects upon the screen for added emphasis as the teen listens to each through his headphones. What begins as an injection of confidence to live the way Bruce sings soon shifts towards the reality that nobody’s life is so black and white. What worked for Springsteen won’t work for him the same way. Javed must filter the essence of that rebellion through his own personal lens to realize a compromise needs to be made within. Freedom isn’t reliant upon escape.

The words to “Thunder Road” can introduce him to the world and love interest Eliza (Nell Williams) while also endearing him to Matt’s dad (Rob Brydon) to gang up on the boy and risk their friendship (an integral moment that opens Javed’s eyes to his own hypocrisy even if it proves reductive in execution). “Prove It All Night” pushes him to choose a western mentality of individualistic desire over his heritage’s conservative patriarchal values. And “Born to Run” becomes a galvanizing rebel yell against the establishment and racism—a nuanced political message catered to the plight of British immigrants that will resonate where Debbie Gibson’s pop songs only distract. Instead of fighting his father (Kulvinder Ghir‘s Malik), maybe Javed’s words can provide inspiration like Springsteen’s did for him.

Before that can happen, however, he must become cognizant of the power his art possesses. Using his tenacity to get an article into the school paper and taping a poem onto his girlfriend’s window comes with implicit biases. The editor didn’t request Javed’s work and Eliza’s adoration of the text carries emotional import. Only when external and objective viewers commend the merit of what he’s creating does his dream start to feel attainable. Whether it’s a neighbor (David Hayman) or teacher (Hayley Atwell) providing the cheering section his folks can’t, Javeed finally sees value in turning his back on the responsibilities he never asked to shoulder. But at what cost? Maturity is still necessary to acknowledge every dream is rendered meaningless without one’s loved ones to share it.

For those who think that sounds pretty saccharine: you’re right. It is. Similar to Chadha’s breakout Golden Globe-nominated Bend It Like Beckham, Blinded by the Light intentionally toes the line between politically relevant and crowd-pleasing entertainment. While it’s a tone that allows a lot of the heavy stuff to be forgotten in blink and you’ll miss them resolutions (if any are provided at all), it helps disseminate its central message to a wide-ranging audience courtesy of family-friendly machinations. Kalra’s Javed might be shown with an ear-to-ear grin for eighty percent of the runtime, but that abundance of pure joy never feels false thanks to the dramatic tears shared. It’s also okay to laugh at the stereotypes Ghir’s Malik reinforces because he’s also allowed the complexity of authentic fallibility.

Just when you think a supporting character will be relegated to two-dimensional posturing, Chadha and company give them a scene to shine. It can be Chapman letting his Matt’s own insecurities out or Nikita Mehta as Javed’s younger sister Shazia exposing just how similar her plight is to his (albeit having already discovered a means to cope with it much sooner and more effectively despite her age). There’s more than meets the eye with most of what’s happening because it’s heightened by the inclusion of Springsteen’s lyrics (or absence thereof). How does Javed belting his words disarm those around him or empower him against them and how does his shutting off his Walkman to experience a moment unfettered calculate his growth? The Boss is always but a stepping-stone.

This also means the incorporation of his music doesn’t have to be serious. The initial exposure of its heaviness to Javed demands it alongside a violent protest juxtaposed with “Jungleland”, but most of the rest craves fun instead. If that means blurring the line between abstract musical interlude and wholly integrated song—so be it. I love the cheesiness of Javed starting “Thunder Road” as though the former only to have Matt sheepishly ask why he’s embarrassing himself to prove it’s actually the latter. Why can’t these kids sing at the top of their lungs without a shred of shame? Why can’t they tell the world everything they’re feeling via the songs that gave them the words to do so? Art provides salvation precisely because it rejects convention.

[1] © 2019 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. Photo Credit: Nick Wall Caption: VIVEIK KALRA as Javed in New Line Cinema’s drama, BLINDED BY THE LIGHT, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
[2] © 2019 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures Caption: (L-r) NELL WILLIAMS as Eliza, AARON PHAGURA as Roops and VIVEIK KALRA as Javed in New Line Cinema’s inspirational drama BLINDED BY THE LIGHT, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
[3] © 2019 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. Photo Credit: Nick Wall Caption: MEERA GANATRA as Noor in New Line Cinema’s inspirational drama BLINDED BY THE LIGHT, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

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