This is a re-post of our Blinded by the Light review from the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. It’s now playing in theaters.
Blinded by the Light is an irresistible movie. You may be initially dubious about its premise—a coming-of-age 80s-set story about a young British Pakistani boy who discovers his identity by listening to Bruce Springsteen—but you will inevitably succumb to its charms. You may think the film’s sentimentality is too much, but you’ll be in tears by the end. It’s a rapturously joyous, heartfelt, and genuinely insightful film not just about The Boss, but about the personal nature and power of music. About how art in general can shape and affect one’s life in substantial ways—especially during the advent of adolescence. I have no doubt that by the time 2019 is done, Blinded by the Light will stand as one of the year’s best films.
Based on the life of journalist and the movie’s co-writer Sarfraz Manzoor, Blinded by the Light opens in 1987 in the small town of Luton, which sits about 200 miles outside London. Javed (Viveik Kalra), the only son of a British Pakistani family, is finding it hard to fit in at his new school, clinging to the New Wave band he shares with a childhood friend (Game of Thrones actor Dean-Charles Chapman) as his only substantial social engagement. When his strict father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) gets laid off after over a decade of service at a local factory, the pressure at home mounts for Javed to pass his A levels and land a job in business, after which he can support a family of his own.
But unbeknownst to his mother and father, Javed has chosen to study English, and is spurred by his teacher Miss Clay (Hayley Atwell)—a woman who does not keep her negative opinions of Margaret Thatcher’s England to herself—to share some of his poetry and writing. Despondent over the tense financial situation at home, one night Javed throws all his poems in the trash outside and pops in a Bruce Springsteen cassette tape loaned to him by a new friend a school, Roops (Aaron Phagura). The minute he begins listening to the lyrics of “Dancing in the Dark,” Javed’s life is changed. The sequence plays out in strking fashion, as the lyrics from the song flash across the screen, underlining how personally they hit home for Javed, after which he struggles to collect his discarded poems in the midst of a wind storm. After this fateful night, Javed subsequently becomes obsessed with Springsteen, clinging to the singer’s lyrics about working class life and how dreams can’t become a reality until you actually do something about them.
Springsteen’s music helps Javed cope with nasty neo-Nazi skinheads in his neighborhood, his desire to find a girlfriend, his family’s financial situation, and most importantly his relationship with his father. Indeed, the heart of Blinded by the Light is the relationship between Javed and Malik, as Malik stresses the importance of living a traditional Muslim life and scoring his version of success, given that Malik moved his entire family out of Pakistan so that their subsequent generations could have exponentially better lives.
So yes, this is a coming of age story and a film about forging one’s own path in life, but not quite like any you’ve seen before. Technically Blinded by the Light is a musical. A number of Springsteen’s songs play throughout the film, usually in diegetic form as Javed is glued to his Walkman. The “Born to Run” sequence in particular is pure, unfiltered joy on screen. Director Gurinder Chadha, who marks her first English-language film since Bend It Like Beckham, brings this unique story to life in brilliantly elegant fashion. The musical sequences aren’t fantastical or otherworldly precisely because Springsteen’s songs aren’t about escaping reality, but about coping and making it through hard times. There’s a grounded nature to the songs performed in the film, not dissimilar to the way the songs were presented in another incredible music-centric Sundance indie called Sing Street. Though don’t get me wrong, Javed doesn’t “perform” these songs in a traditional musical sense. Think of it as the greatest karaoke or bar sing-a-long movie ever made.
Kalra’s performance is the thing “breakout roles” are made of. He’s endearing without being overly sentimental, and he’s charming yet you also buy him as a quiet, somewhat alienated outsider. The role of Javed is deceptively complex, and Kalra never hits a false note whether he’s singing along at the top of his lungs to “The Promised Land” or tearfully confronting his father. Likewise, Ghir’s performance as Malik is refreshingly complex. He’s not a stereotypical demanding father. He’s stern to be sure, and has major philosophical differences with his son, but Ghir fleshes the character out as a complicated human being, not an antagonist here to serve a movie’s plot.
Springsteen’s songs are the backbone of Blinded by the Light and undoubtedly play an important role in the film, but you don’t need to be a Springsteen superfan (or even a fan, really) to connect with this movie. The screenplay fleshes out Javed’s home life and digs into what makes his family and culture unique. This isn’t some glossy film in which Pakistani culture is simply window dressing for Bruce Springsteen songs.
The personal nature of all music is the point of Blinded by the Light. How music as an art form has a unique way of speaking to individuals, and can go so far as to change their life. Music can conjure emotions of joy, sadness, longing, and rebellion to be sure, but it can also spur one to make bolder decisions in one’s life. What’s unique about music as compared to other art forms is just how personal it is. While Springsteen means the world to Javed, his best friend Matt doesn’t quite get it, and instead finds meaning in songs from bands like Ah-Ha and Cutting Crew. And that’s okay! We don’t all have to like the same things. But where Blinded by the Light soars is how Javed takes what Springsteen means to him and extrapolates that into his own personal artistic expression, whether it’s writing an essay or finally telling his father that he wants to strike out on his own.
Blinded by the Light stops short of exalting Springsteen as a be-all, end-all solution to Javed’s problems, and in fact has a lot to say about healthy fandom. The film is all the better for it, as it makes the story personal to Javed and underlines the individual impact of Springsteen’s music on this boy. It’s one of many inspired decisions on the parts of the filmmakers here, and while there are so many ways Blinded by the Light could have gone wrong and come off as cheesy, melodramatic, or downright weird, Chadha and her collaborators absolutely nail every single beat.
Blinded by the Light is kind of a miracle. It shouldn’t work. It should be a silly, saccharine Hollywood concoction. And yet I was on the verge of tears for much of the film’s runtime. The undercurrent of authenticity throughout really lets the emotional impact of the film land. It never comes off as trite or manufactured, and what the film has to say about the universally personal nature of music—and art in general—makes the theme potent for Springsteen fans and non-fans alike.
When the movie ends and you’re wiping the tears from your face, you may find that you want to run through the streets telling everyone you know to see Blinded by the Light as soon as possible. And baby, we were born to run.