In the bastardised words of Bruce Springsteen: Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing, Blinded By The Light took a wrong turn and just kept going. Gurinder Chadha’s feel-good musical has a decent amount to commend it for, but much of its potential is lost in cheesy staging and a tone that doesn’t harmonise with the considered reality and tempered hopes of the Bruce Springsteen lyrics that scores the whole affair.
Based on Safraz Mansoor’s autobiography, our lead character is Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra): a young man in 1987 Luton, fast approaching the end of his time at school. He writes poetry, which is admired by his English teacher (Hayley Atwell), and also lyrics for his friend Matt’s (Dean-Charles Chapman) band. However, his father – a traditional and conservative immigrant from Pakistan – has his sights set on more conventionally lucrative professions for his son. When Javed discovers Bruce Springsteen through his friend Roops (Aaron Phagura), he finds The Boss’ lyrics speak to his own experience in a seemingly dead-end existence and reinvigorates his creativity and desire to become a writer.
The story setup sounds reasonably familiar, and some of the themes overlap with Chadha’s best-remembered feature: Bend It Like Beckham. Once again, there is a clash of the modern ambitions of a young family member – Javed here, Jess in the 2002 feature – with the more traditional views of their family. What Blinded By The Light does very effectively is utilise the period setting to present the societal barriers Javed faces in his goal to become a writer.
Throughout the film, the National Front is a looming presence. Early on, Javed scurries home followed by a man who was scrawling racist graffiti, and later a National Front march is the fulcrum of an emotional set piece. More casual racism presents itself elsewhere: Javed and Roops are not taken seriously when asking for a Springsteen-focused slot on the school radio, with the painfully white DJs not getting the Asian boys obsession with ‘old’ white music. Javed also gets his minor break with the school paper based on the ‘novelty’ of a young man from a Pakistani family being inspired by Springsteen – indeed, his father rages that “writing is for English people with rich parents”.
As the film progresses though, Javed and his friends become the cinematic equivalent of that annoying friend who can’t stop banging on about the genius lyrics of their favourite musical artist. There are interminably long sections, shot in the manner of a music video, centred on Born To Run and Dancing In The Dark, during which Chandha has the text of the lyrics swirl around the characters as a sort of kinetic subtitling. Not content to have the music itself and Javed’s dialogue communicate the apparent relatability of Springsteen’s work, it must also be quite literally spelled out.
At the core of Blinded By The Light are a number of themes just as relatable as Springsteen’s lyrics but the film’s script shows little interest in pursuing them, instead doubling down on being tritely ‘uplifting’. The motorway to London is a recurring motif from the opening scene, scored more than once to The Promised Land. America – and New Jersey in particular – is presented as a creative mecca, ignoring the lack of opportunities and cycle of drudgery that prompted Springsteen’s poetic laments in the first place. Much like the strands not directly related to inspirational music, to engage too deeply would prevent the film from allowing itself to be uplifting.
Instead of playing out as an upbeat ode to the idea that creativity begets creativity, using humour to palatably highlight the hope and empathy offered by artistic expression in the face of oppressive personal or societal circumstances, the story veers away from that. The film instead devolves into an empty form of hero-worship and sing-along, underlined with the cheesy and teary cliches British ‘dramedies’ seem peculiarly fond of. As a result, the charm of the film and its characters becomes cloying as it progresses; much like taking a single Springsteen hit and playing it on an endless loop on its own.
Instead of using music to help digest its potentially interesting mix of humour and contemporaneously resonant commentary, Blinded By The Light goes the more saccharine sing-along route that feels emptier and trite.