WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
It’s the height of the Thatcher years in Britain and small, blue-collar town, Luton is racked by high unemployment rates and an increasing rise in white supremacist groups. For Javed, a teenage son of Pakistani parents, though, things are significantly work. Even as it seems the world around him is on the brink of collapse, he becomes increasingly frustrated by the restrictions placed on him by his conservative father. Javed is a poet and a writer who has big dreams of using his gifts to "change the world". His dad, who risked everything to build a life for his family in England, wants him to focus on his studies so he can find himself a good job in a safe profession like law, medicine or accountancy. Just when things couldn’t look any drabber and more hopeless, though, Javed is presented with a couple of Bruce Springsteen albums by a Sikh boy at his school and despite initially scoffing at the idea that some big-time, American rock star has anything to say to a Pakistani kid in small-town UK, he soon finds salvation in the words and music of the Boss. Based on the true story of Sarfraz Manzoor.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
Music-based films have enjoyed something of a surge in popularity and acclaim in the past few years with the sensational Rocketman bringing the verve of a full-blown musical to the tired rock-biopic formula and Yesterday proving that you can make a feel-good hit out of even the most nightmarish of scenarios: a world without the Beatles. Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light doesn’t so much continue that trend as suggest that it’s only getting started.
Chadha (who co-writes the film with Paul Mayeda Berges and Sarfraz Manzoor himself) is probably best known for Bend it Like Beckham and she has had a certain amount of trouble living up to it in the years since. Bruce Springsteen, then, has proven not just to be the salvation of Blinded By the Light’s young hero but Gurinder Chadha’s too as she has finally made a film that not only equals Bend it Like Beckham but breezily surpasses it on every level. Most astonishingly, in the battle between the Beatles and the Boss for the title of “feel-good film of the year”, the Fab Four may finally have met their match – hard as that is for a Beatles fanatic like me to admit.
And yet, Blinded By the Light actually has less in common with Yesterday or any of the other music films of the past twelve months than with 2016’s sublime Sing Street. Trading Ireland for England and original songs for Springsteen classics, Blinded By the Light shares the same ‘80s setting as Sing Street but, most importantly, they both boast a pitch-perfect mix of melancholic kitchen-sink drama, laugh-out-loud comedy and enough heart and soul to melt the hearts of all but the Scroogiest of cynics; all centred on the fantastical but still somehow true notion that music can totally save your life.
Like Sing Street, this is not a film to shy away from predictability, even cliché but rather than being a weakness, it’s testament to the way that a certain amount of familiarity can be key to the success of both a great pop song and to its cinematic equivalent: the feel-good crowd-pleaser. Snobs may scoff, but as anyone who has listened to more than a few minutes of Top 40 radio or been forced to sit through the nauseating bilge of the vast, vast majority of “feel-good” romcoms knows, these seemingly simple, lowly art forms are notoriously difficult to get right.
Ironic, of course, to be talking about pop music because, for both better and worse, “pop” can only be applied to Springsteen in the broadest possible terms. He was and is popular, yes, and his songs are reasonably catchy for what they are, but his music has always been more about placing his very particular kind of wordy, blue-collar-Americana lyrics over a musical backing that is more about power and passion than pure songcraft. It’s also why – putting aside the real-life roots of the film and Chadha’s own passion for the Boss – using Springsteen’s songs as the musical backdrop for this particular tale is such a masterstroke.
We can certainly sympathise with Javed’s initial doubts about Bruce Springsteen’s music having anything to say to a sensitive, Pakistani-British kid (Bruce’s music is, after all, brash, macho and unfailingly American) but anyone who is familiar with Springsteen’s lyrics will also understand exactly why he does ultimately connect so strongly with them. There’s a reason that Born to Run is still the quintessential Bruce Springsteen song and that reason is reflected in the way that it is used as the central set piece in Blinded by the Light. Transposing Springsteen’s music to such a British setting might seem strange at first but “tramps like us/ baby, we were born to run” is pretty much the entire ethos of the film.
There is a predictability to Born to Run (with a riff that good, the song smartly never moves too far away from it) and it’s hardly what anyone would call subtle but there’s also an exuberance, a joyfulness and a shameless romanticism to it that makes it such a perfect song about, basically, getting the hell out of dodge without ever really leaving it. If its lyrics reflect what the film is about, then its music perfectly encapsulates everything that’s so great about the film. Its stylistic tics and occasional forays into musical-like fantasy are overblown, and it never strays too far from its own instantly familiar riff, but it’s a film so packed with romantic, vivacious life that it turns what could be flaws into real virtues.
The sharp script, the incredible music, and the confident and stylish direction all play their parts in making Blinded By the Light the hit that Springsteen’s song of the same name never was (though Manfred Mann did rather better with it), but it’s the performances that give it so much of its vitality. Bolstered by a brace of excellent supporting performances from actors both well (Hayley Atwell, Rob Brydon at a push) and less well known (everyone else, pretty much), the film really belongs to newcomer Viveik Kalra, who is just incredibly charming as the moody but super likeable Javed, and acting veteran, Kulvinder Ghir, as Javed’s immensely flawed but thoroughly decent and warmly human father, Malik. There’s a romantic subplot in the film, but the heart of the film is undoubtedly this tense father-and-son relationship, so authentically portrayed by both actors.
Perhaps the biggest compliment that I can pay the film, though, is that it totally convinces even a Springsteen agnostic like me (I like a fair amount of his music, but I’ve never really bought into his whole “blue-collar-hero schtick – I’m way too middle class for that) that his music does have this sort of redemptive power. Indeed, between this and his fantastic Netflix special, Springsteen on Broadway, I’ve never had a greater appreciation for the guy and his music.
Springsteen fan or not, though, I’m sure a great many of us can point to the band or artist whose music felt like a real lifeline, especially during adolescence (for me, it was the Beatles for the life-affirming brilliance of their music and The Who’s Quadrophenia for somehow reflecting exactly what was going on in my head at the time despite being written nearly a decade before I was born) and Blinded By the Light captures that feeling about as well as any film I’ve ever seen.