Movie review: 'Blinded by the Light' irresistibly blends Bruce Springsteen and Bollywood
By KENNETH TURAN | Los Angeles Times | Published: August 15, 2019
The Boss meets Bollywood, and if those potent entities resonate with you, you know that combination is not to be missed.
If you don’t know, you’re going to find out as "Blinded by the Light," a high-spirited film with enough potential for pleasure to get picked up at Sundance by a major like Warners, goes into wide release.
An unabashed mash note to the power of popular music in general and the life-changing anthems of Bruce Springsteen in particular, "Blinded by the Light" not only showcases some 17 of the Boss’ songs, it uses them in the irresistible manner of India’s popular Bollywood musicals.
Director Gurinder Chadha has done this before in 2004’s "Bride & Prejudice," a Bollywood-style reworking of the Jane Austen novel, which employs music as an intrinsic storytelling element that moves the narrative forward as it entertains.
Also the director of "Bend It Like Beckham," Chadha, raised in London with an East African Indian background, has had experience with the more serious elements of this story of a British Pakistani teenager trying to thread the needle between fealty to his Muslim parents and finding his own way in a new land.
This particular story comes to the screen by way of "Greetings From Bury Park," a memoir by British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, a serious fan who’s seen Springsteen in concert more than 150 times and says his initial high school encounter with the man’s music literally transformed his life.
"Blinded’s" screenplay, written by Manzoor, Chadha and her regular writing partner Paul Mayeda Berges, is more inspired by Manzoor’s story than a literal adaptation of it. As Mansoor himself puts it, what’s important is that the film is "emotionally autobiographical," and it apparently is.
Set in 1987 in the Bury Park neighborhood of Luton, a nondescript town north of London, "Blinded" introduces 16-year-old Javed (sweet-natured newcomer Viveik Kalra), whose dream is very different from his reality.
An aspiring writer who wants to "make loads of money, kiss a girl and get out of this dump," Javed is for now trapped in a home that’s run with an iron fist by his old-country father, Malik ("Beckham" veteran Kulvinder Ghir).
A hard-core traditionalist who believes children must obey their parents absolutely, Malik has a very narrow path envisioned for his son and insists on controlling all aspects of his life.
"Pakistanis do not go to parties," he tells Javed, who can only look on wistfully as his best friend, Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman), a would-be rocker, lives the high life across the street.
Then Malik loses his job at the local Vauxhall auto plant, and pressure on the whole family, including Javed’s seamstress mother, Noor (Meera Ganatra), goes up several notches. Being in a town rife with National Front racist thugs does not help.
At school things are better, but only marginally. Javed takes a creative writing class from the encouraging Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell) and develops a crush on Eliza (Nell Williams), a feisty, politically active fellow student.
Then he literally bumps into Sikh classmate Roops (Aaron Phagura). The two share a table at lunch, and Roops lends him cassette tapes of "Born in the U.S.A." and "Darkness on the Edge of Town." "Guard them with your life," he tells him. "You’ll thank me later."
At a personal low point about 20 minutes into the film, Javed pops the music into his Walkman and the first two songs he hears, "Dancing In The Dark" and "Promised Land," blow his life apart like the gale that is raging through his neighborhood.
Javed gets so involved in the music that the lyrics magically appear written on nearby walls in giant letters and the whole movie comes inescapably alive with a jolt of Springsteen energy.
"Bruce knows everything I’ve ever felt," he tells Roops. "I didn’t know music could be like this."
The hip kids at his school sniff at Springsteen as yesterday’s news, but Javed could care less. He believes, and gradually Springsteen’s music makes everybody on screen move.
Chadha, who gave Keira Knightley one of her breakout roles in "Beckham," has an eye for lead casting, and Kalra, equal parts wistful and energetic, convinces you that Springsteen has written the soundtrack of his life.
Speaking of music, there is a ton of Springsteen’s work here, including the title song and a previously unreleased track, "I’ll Stand by You Always," intended for a Harry Potter film and playing here over the final credits.
All the songs energize us as intended, but the most memorable are the anthems that end up as part of full-on production numbers.
"Born to Run" energizes his schoolmates when Javed and Roops sneak the tune onto the local sound system, and "Thunder Road" turns an entire Saturday market into a joyous musical in the blink of an eye.
Springsteen’s music does not immediately make things better between Javed and his parents, but don’t lose faith. The reality of intergenerational conflict is a given for "Blinded by the Light," but nothing can stand up to the transformative power of the Boss. You can take that to the bank.
"Blinded by the Light" is rated PG-13 for thematic material and language, including some ethnic slurs. Running time: 118 minutes.