Film Review: Blinded by the Light

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Unflinching devotion to the sappier side of 80s culture and music worked well back in 2016, when John Carney followed up his busking duology Once and Begin Again with the toe-tapping Sing Street. However, Bend It Like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha goes for a much harder sell here. Blinded by the Light still exudes boundless enthusiasm and poppy sincerity, yet its Bruce Springsteen focus set against the backdrop of Thatcherism and race riots threatens to throw off its balance with a mesh of disparate cultural touchstones.

Inspiration is lifted from writer and journalist Sarfraz Manzoor’s book Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Roll, with newcomer Viveik Kalra acting as Manzoor’s surrogate Javed. The British-Pakistani teen experiences first-hand the exterior oppression of 1980s Luton, whilst suffering from domestic repression from his overbearing and expectant father, Malik. While his best friend Matt is discovering the wonders of synth tracks and summer girlfriends, Jared is stuck at home as his wages are sponged to provide for his well-meaning but stifling family.

Kalra is suitably doe-eyed and undeniably endearing for the role, and his gawky charm will undoubtedly be put to good use in romantic comedies down the line. Where he falls down on, sadly, are his lacklustre pipes. Jared is consistently drowned by the roaring vocals of Springsteen himself, though it’s likely that this was a purposeful move from Chadha. This is no Rocketman; not even a low-budget facsimile. Musical numbers exist not in a fantastical Broadway dreamscape, but almost entirely within the diegesis of the film.

In framing musical set-pieces as insular, frenzied moments of spontaneity down school corridors or street corners, Chadha perfectly captures that second-hand embarrassment you feel watching someone get a little too into their current obsession. Blinded by the Light will almost certainly be the most uncool film you see all summer, but it’s hard not to feel a tingle of validation for your own slightly outdated teenage obsessions. Thatcher’s Britain and the quintessential Americana of Springsteen’s Thunder Road or Born to Run are elements completely at odds with each other, but they clash tunefully with all the anarchic spirit of Javed’s sharp love interest, Eliza.

The duelling presences of two guest stars Hayley Atwell and Rob Brydon, respectively Javed’s fiery English teacher Miss Clay and his best friend Matt’s father, two characters who, from my recollection, never meet, highlight perfectly this duality of tone. Hollywood’s glamour represented by Captain America’s Atwell, despite her Britishness, and the toe-curling cringe of Brydon’s era-appropriate mullet and raspy vocal fry. When Brydon interrupts a sweet serenade between Javed and Eliza with his own lilting renditions you’re almost thankful, as it solidifies Blinded by the Light’s place firmly in the realms of sugar-sweet geekiness.

The Verdict

At once a blistering portrait of the harsh truths of working-class solidarity and an ode to the unifying powers of good-old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll, Chadha’s latest effort is timely and poignant, if a little cluttered. While most performances outside of the big names filling supporting roles are scrappy, winning, but with much need of some vocal polish, a disarming turn from Kulvinder Ghir as Javed’s prickly yet enduring father delivers the film’s most unexpected gut punches as it moves through the final movements. Come for the denim jackets, electric guitars and needle drops, stay for an intimately gruelling snapshot of British-Pakistani life in the 1980s.

Rating: 6/10

Words by Lucas Hill-Paul

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