Blinded by the Light
It seems to be the year of the music biopic. There has been a surge of music biopics since Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) immortalized Queen. 2019 has brought us the lives of Elton John in Rocketman (2019) and a smart and distanced take on The Beatles in Yesterday (2019). There are still two further films this year to focus on a musical artist’s repertoire, one looks at Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics in Blinded by the Light (2019), and later on for Christmas time, Emilia Clark and Henry Golding will jam to some George Michael in Last Christmas (2019).
Blinded by the Light is director Gurinder Chadra’s adaptation of a true story about a British-Pakistani writer who made it through his adolescence thanks to Bruce Springsteen’s songs. The film follows Javed (Viveik Kalra) a sixteen-year-old introvert in 1987 Luton, Britain, struggling between his dual identity of Western Brit and traditionalist Pakistani. He longs to write poems and lyrics for a neighbor’s band (Dean Charles Chapman), but is restricted by a very conservative father (Kulvinder Ghir). When a school-friend (Aaron Phagura) lends him some album tapes from Bruce Springsteen, Javed finds a comfort and confidence that leads him to journey and discover his true self.
Chadra has already shown she was capable of dealing with a cultural clash of values with her brilliant Bend it Like Beckham (2002), which was a surprise hit. However, the smash indie did lean into black-and-white portrayals of Hindu traditionalist parents. In Blinded by the Light, Chadra is able to better craft the conservative family, leading towards characters with more depth, and thus more emotional value. It also helps that Kulvinder Ghir gives a fantastic performance in the role of the patriarch. Chadra also chooses to focus more on the racism clash in Britain, specifically with the back-drop of the divided Britain of Margaret Thatcher’s last years in office. The film doesn’t seek to show scenes of pity, but rather subtly barrages viewers with a constant reminder of the degradation of Javed and his family.
Chadra’s portrayal of traditionalism and conservatism from the immigrant families in her films, have always been smart to skirt off of religion. Both in Bend it Like Beckham and Blinded by the Light the issue of religion isn’t the underlying aspect that causes families’ conservatism (as it is unfairly and often linked). Blinded by the Light mentions Javed and his Muslim identity only in passing, and matter-of-factly; showing that the issues seen on screen are a root of masculine insecurity instead.
It was interesting to see Chadra deal with the clash of multi-culturalism and insecure masculinity, especially with the backdrop of the unemployment surge of late 80s Britain. The utility of Springsteen as a lens for this search of identity and masculine comfort is one that fits perfectly with the characters’ issues. Chadra is able to bring about The Boss’s songs to life, by having the lyrics written out and float around Javed, highlighting his points of connection with specific words and giving greater depth to the songs in turn.
Springsteen was always one of the best song-writers of his generation, and perhaps of all time, but Chadra is able to bring about his themes of struggle and yearning for liberation to life with Javed’s story. This perspective choice, actually gives Springsteen and his legacy more meaning and emotional intensity than a straightforward biopic would have achieved.
Many actors struggle to portray introverts, since, in order to be a performer, one has to have a bold confidence. Viveik Kalra, however, is able to give his Javed a true authenticity with his timidity at the start of the film, and a believable build up until he settles into a persona he finally can claim for himself.
The film is able to cover all the emotional bases it set out to hit, while also honing and deepening a complicated portrayal of multiculturalism and the struggles it usually seeds. Chadra might flounder a bit in the choreography aspects of the film (an unconvincing “Born to Run” number), and the film might rush to tie up many loose ends in the finale, but those stumbles are not enough to take away from a truly touching film, with fabulous performances from criminally unknown performers. Added to that The Boss’s poetic lyrics, and you have one fabulous afternoon screening.