Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Sudance Film Festival. Warner Bros. releases the film on Friday, August 16.
Gurinder Chadha’s “Blinded by the Light,” a glorious and almost terminally pure coming-of-age story about a repressed British Pakistani teen in 1987 Luton whose mind explodes when he discovers an uncool American poet by the name of Bruce Springsteen, is a film that feels as out of time as the music tastes of its 16-year-old protagonist. It exudes the earnestness of a Bollywood musical, embraces the familiar immigrant tropes of a less diasporic world, and electrifies its paper-thin but profoundly lovable characters with an optimism that’s as rare in Thatcher’s England as it is in Trump’s America.
And Chadha isn’t the least bit sorry about that, nor about how transparently she combines the warm cross-cultural friction of her own “Bend it Like Beckham” with the exuberance of “Sing Street” before transforming them both with the bone-deep power of the Boss himself (Springsteen gave her permission to use his music as soon as he read the script). “Blinded by the Light” is the kind of guileless crowd-pleaser that will make some people cry a river of tears and others roll their eyes into the backs their heads; it will probably make a lot of people do both. But if you have even the slightest emotional connection to Springsteen’s music — if you’ve ever found salvation in a rock song, or desperately wished that you could change your clothes, your hair, your face — this giddy steamroller of a movie is going to flatten you whether you like it or not.
Despite how fable-like the film can be, “Blinded by the Light” is (loosely) adapted from a memoir by Pakistan-born, England-raised Bruce fanatic Sarfraz Manzoor, who’s seen the Boss in concert more than 150 times. The film distills him into a kid with a similar background but a different name and a more enchanted life. Javed (a winsome Viveik Kalra in his first big-screen role), is a very sensitive boy. Like, has written poems in his diary every day since he was nine sensitive. All he wants is to “make friends, kiss a girl, and get out of this dump.” If only someone had ever put those feelings into words.
Of course, Javed can afford to wear his heart on his sleeve, because Malik, his overbearing Pakistani father (veteran actor Kulvinder Ghir in a heartfelt and hilarious performance) won’t let anything happen to it. He and his seamstress wife (Meera Ganatra) have devoted their their entire lives to eking out a better future for Javed and his sisters. He’s a proud and traditional patriarch who refuses to let his son grow up to be a taxi driver, but he also lives in denial about Javed’s burning desire to become his own man (when Javed complains, his dad replies: “You can choose to be a doctor or a lawyer, so don’t say I don’t give you any freedom!”).
And it’s not as if Malik doesn’t have reason to be concerned. Thatcher’s austerity measures are wreaking havoc across the working class; jobs are hard to come by, and the average period of unemployment stands at more than nine years. Back then, Javed’s dream of earning a stable career as a writer is almost as unfathomable to his father then as it would to virtually anyone now.
Add that to the area’s recent uptick in racist intimidation from the skinheads of the National Front and the garden-variety xenophobes they inspire (local children piss through the mail slots of Pakistani homes so often that one family installs a plastic mat by the front door), and it’s easy to appreciate why Malik is concerned with putting his son on “the right path.” It’s nothing you haven’t seen in a handful of other commercially minded stories about the tension between heritage and assimilation, but the sincerity of Chadha’s winsome cast makes every cliché feel as urgent as it does for the people who can’t escape them.
Javed doesn’t know it yet, but he’s about to be given a way out. Malik thinks Javed is going to school for economics (“Stay away from the girls and look for the Jews in your class!” he shouts when dropping off his son for the first day of sixth form), but our hero has another focus in his mind. Within a matter of minutes, he’ll also have a standard-issue inspirational writing teacher (Hayley Atwell), a crush on the most political girl in his class (Nell Williams), and a literal run-in with a Sikh kid named Rhoops (an instantly and massively endearing Aaron Phagura) who gives Javed two cassette tapes that he promises will offer “a direct line to all that’s true in this shitty world.”
‘I’ve done my best to live the right way
I get up every morning and go to work each day
But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold
Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode
Explode and tear this town apart
Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart
Find somebody itching for something to start.”
It’s like this strange white man from New Jersey is singing directly to Javed — like he’s describing every beat of his life, and charting the kid a course to his own promised land. The lyrics erupt so intensely in Javed’s brain that the words spill out into the real world and splash around the screen. It’s an ugly and unnecessary touch that distracts from the purity of the moment, and one of a few places in which Chadha would have done well to pull back and let the music speak for itself (a chintzy framing device provides another example). Ultimately, it doesn’t matter: The scene will destroy you all the same.
It’s a sublime crystallization of what it feels like to be seen for the first time, and it perfectly captures how Springsteen’s best songs translate the American Dream into a universal language that has the power to speak to everyone’s most basic hopes and frustrations. There’s a reason why Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are one of the most vital and enduring stadium acts in history, and it’s not just because of their supernatural endurance. They can make 80,000 people — even 80,000 people from New York and New Jersey — feel like they’re all coming from the same place. “Blinded by the Light” takes that feeling, stretches it across oceans and cultures and races and decades, and sustains it for almost the entire length of its running time.
Javed isn’t just a fan of Bruce’s music, he’s possessed by it. Chadha encourages him every step of the way, as her movie transforms into a jukebox musical that only cares about one man’s records. She cranks up the corniness so hard and so fast that the film becomes a direct challenge to your cynicism. Many of the scenes that follow are as hard to stomach as they are to resist. It’s rare that a film makes you want to vomit and cry with happiness at the same time, but that’s a natural physiological response to the bit where Javed sings “Thunder Road” at his crush in the middle of a crowded market (complete with a Rob Brydon cameo that’s worth the price of admission), or when he and Rhoops stand up to some Nazi scum by chanting some Bruce lyrics.
Maybe the film’s best stretch comes when the boys lock the Tiffany-obsessed school DJ out of the college radio studio, race through the streets while singing “Born to Run,” and inspire a rabble of unemployed factory men to join along. For such a sentimental movie, the passage where “Jungleland” plays over the violence of an anti-immigrant rally is surprisingly hard to shake. There are 17 Springsteen tracks strewn across this movie, and every one of them arrives at just the right moment. Odds are you’ll either be won over or walk out by the time Javed pops on “Prove it All Night” in order to psych himself up for his first kiss. It’s so, so much, but it cuts through the denim fantasy of Springsteen’s music and finds a kernel of truth in every lie he ever told.
And really, it’s hard not to pity the people who leave before the film gently counters all this American cultural imperialism by sticking up for Malik’s own aspirations, and the history that hardened them. The American Dream is nice, but it isn’t real; one listen to “Born in the U.S.A.” is enough to dispel anyone of that idea. “Blinded by the Light” looks into the most rousing songbook any citizen of this country has ever written to find a truth that doesn’t belong to Asbury Park or Luton or Karachi or anywhere else in this unforgiving world. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, only that you find the strength to believe in your own promised land.
“Blinded by the Light” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.