Chris Knight: Blinded By the Light blends an over-simplified narrative with a classic sound

Chris Knight reviews the true story of a future writer growing up in 1980s Britain who was inspired by the music of Bruce Springsteen

Viveik Kalra in Blinded by the Light (2019). Nick Wall / Warner Bros

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There’s a vein of working-class anger and disappointment running through the songbook of American troubadour Bruce Springsteen. Just look at the opening lines of Born in the U.S.A.: “Born down in a dead man’s town / The first kick I took was when I hit the ground / End up like a dog that’s been beat too much.” It’s a long way from the patriotic-sounding refrain.

So where’s the anger in Blinded By the Light, inspired by the early life of British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor? Renamed Javed Khan and played by the appealing Viveik Kalra, the young man faces racism in the streets of late 1980s Luton (a satellite of London) and Pakistani parents at home who just don’t get him. But he finds solace in the words of Springsteen, whose lyrics resonate in blue-collar listeners oceans away from his New Jersey birthplace.

It’s an upbeat, crowd-pleasing story, but director and co-writer Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) oversimplifies the narrative at every turn. Javed and the rest of the Pakistani community have to deal with broad-strokes racism in the form of skinheads marching in the streets, but nowhere do we see evidence of the micro-aggressions suffered by immigrants in Thatcherite Britain.

There are some instructive scenes, not least when Javed’s sister (Nikita Mehta) attends a “daytimer,” in which the kids of South Asian immigrants, forbidden from going out at night, gather at 10 a.m. for a daylong dance party before wiping off their makeup and demurely returning home. And there’s a nice running gag in which his dad (Kulvinder Ghir) keeps assuming that Springsteen must be a Jewish name; this after he tells his son on the steps of the school that the route to success is to “do what the Jews do.”

There’s also the undeniable appeal of a soundtrack that includes such Springsteen hits as Badlands, Hungry Heart, Dancing in the Dark and Thunder Road. The film takes its title from an early song by the Boss that gained greater fame when it was covered by Manfred Mann.

Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura, and Viveik Kalra in Blinded by the Light (2019). Nick Wall / Warner Bros

And, as a kind of musical counterpoint, Blinded By the Light holds back for a while on the Boss, stocking its early soundtrack with period hits by the Pet Shop Boys, Level 42, Cutting Crew and Mental As Anything. Javed’s best friend, meanwhile, dresses like a Duran Duran cosplayer, and can’t abide his mate’s new denim/lumberjack look.

Standard beats in this coming-of-age story include Javed’s sweetheart (Nell Williams), the Sikh classmate (Aaron Phagura) who turns him on to Springsteen’s music, and the teacher (Hayley Atwell) who convinces the shy boy that he too has something to say with his poetry.

But Blinded By the Light hits its most convincing notes when we watch Javed discovering Springsteen’s lyrics for the first time. It’s at this point that the film wears its heart on its sleeve and its lyrics on its screen, the latter spelled out and spiraling around the young man’s head. I once had a similar epiphany with the words of Lennon, and can attest to its power in an impressionable mind.

All of this makes the movie’s more pedestrian failings more disappointing, though not enough to sink the story. To have your heart warmed as much as the film clearly wants to do, best to steel yourself for its straight-ahead plot and the irony that, in a movie obsessed with music, so many of its secondary characters are one-note.

3 stars

Blinded By the Light opens across Canada on Aug. 16.

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