Movies

Blinded by the Light Is a Crowd-Pleaser With Something to Say

The quasi-musical based on Bruce Springsteen’s songs is surprisingly smart about the immigrant experience.

Nell Williams, Viveik Kalra, and Aaron Phagura in Blinded by the Light.
Nick Wall - © 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Some movies, especially on paper, feel like minefields: You enter them gingerly, if at all, waiting for flashes of irritation to erupt. That’s certainly how I approached Blinded by the Light, the second movie in nearly as many months about a Desi Brit obsessed with white boomer music. The first, of course, was Yesterday, in which director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Richard Curtis fashion an alternate universe that has somehow never been touched by either the Beatles or race. Yesterday never acknowledges the Fab Four’s (rather well-known) dabblings in Indian music and philosophies, so Jack (Himesh Patel), the protagonist who carries on their musical legacy, doesn’t grapple with them, either. (If he has any thoughts about the band’s Eastern excursions, which sometimes took turns into Orientalism, we’re certainly never privy to them.) Mainstream cinema is no stranger to post-racial fantasies, but—with two of these movies released practically back to back—there’s something undeniably icky about the prospect that brown protagonists are more palatable if they worship at the altars of white cultural figures. Even darker is the assimilationist (or is it colonial?) logic that such premises suggest: The “good” protagonists of color—the ones who deserve to be the heroes of their own wide-release, feel-good movies—are the ones who happen to like and identify with all the same stuff white people do.

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But Blinded by the Light, directed by Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham), not only manages to pirouette and stage-dive its way around most of these landmines but proves itself an old-fashioned blast in the best way: a smart crowd-pleaser that embraces both sweetness and complexity. Set in a small English town in 1987, when Thatcherite policies lead to a spike in unemployment across the country and racist skinheads prowled the streets looking for someone to take out their rage on, this coming-of-age quasi-musical is also an exuberant, unmistakable middle finger to Brexit and the xenophobia that fueled it. Inspired by journalist Sarfraz Manzoor’s childhood (Manzoor penned the screenplay with Chadha and her husband, Paul Mayeda Berges), Blinded by the Light is a moving exploration of how the identities of second-generation immigrants are formed by choosing and adapting the parts of each culture that speak to us.

Before Blinded by the Light becomes very good, though, it starts off a bit meh. Much of that initial tepidness has to do with the film’s regurgitation of now-familiar male-centric Desi-diasporic tropes: overbearing parents, the specter of an arranged marriage, rebellion and maturity symbolized by a romance with a white woman. Newcomer Viveik Kalra plays 16-year-old Javed, a young writer with doe eyes, birdlike features, and a willowy frame. The lyricist for a new wave band led by his best friend (Dean-Charles Chapman), Javed is a gentle giraffe constantly scurrying from his charging rhino of a father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir). An immigrant from Pakistan who doesn’t believe that his children should embrace Western culture (or that they’d be accepted doing so), he so wants his son to stay close and follow in his footsteps that he demands Javed attend a university in their town, despite the stubborn fact that no such school exists.

Javed never seems to have heard of teenage rebellion until he’s introduced to Springsteen by another friend (Aaron Phagura). Once converted, his new priorities are simple: kiss a girl (Nell Williams), get his writing taken seriously, get out of his claustrophobic hometown, and stop being the good boy whose goodness is slowly killing him inside. Blinded by the Light sits squarely in the tradition of movies where the protagonists go too far in their revolt and have to find a happy medium between accommodation and self-importance. It’s in that third-act reverse journey that Blinded by the Light retunes and overcomes those tropes, as Javed sheds his rockist snootiness, adds new layers to his relationship with his dad, and susses out what he needs to take from—or to take leave of—his idol. And it helps, of course, that the Desi-British setting is still relatively novel to American audiences.

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But the hero worship can get grating, especially if, like me, you don’t particularly care for Springsteen’s music. (At least the Boss, who allowed 19 of his songs to be used in the movie, wasn’t so vain that he couldn’t admit he wasn’t the biggest draw by the late ’80s in this corner of southeast England.) Snippets of Springsteen’s lyrics appear on screen as Javed listens to them, connecting the songwriter’s barbed adoration of working-class New Jersey to his own precariously middle-class environs. We hear Javed sing along to Springsteen and see a couple of peppy if unspecial dance sequences, but viewers expecting a proper musical will be disappointed.

Even if the music isn’t a draw for you, the setting should be. Chadha adds more than a few gritty grace notes to make the proceedings feel wonderfully specific to a time and place. Blinded by the Light is the rare ’80s movie to remember the decade in its full baggy, shaggy ugliness. And for a film with so much zip and fizz, it admirably never shies away from exploring the era’s racism and Islamophobia, nor the toll it takes both to fight back and to say nothing.

The heart of the film is the father-son bond, but Chadha, a filmmaker long preoccupied with the inner lives of Desi-British girls and women, also gives Javed’s sister (Nikita Mehta) a lovely reveal. If a couple of segments droop in their strict adherence to Manzoor’s biography, it’s certainly forgivable. This movie won’t blind anyone with its innovation, but it’s got plenty to dazzle and delight.