Who can deny the power of music? More so than any other art form, music has the ability to immediately kick down the door of your soul and re-arrange the furniture. That’s certainly the case for Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra) once the music of Bruce Springsteen enters his life. Clocking up the feel goods as well as a deep strum on the nostalgia guitar, director Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham, Bride and Prejudice, Angus, Thongs, and Perfect Snogging) wants us all to know the life-affirming power of The Boss.
Adapted from the book Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock ‘N’ Roll by journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, Blinded By The Light tells the story of Javad and his family as Luton residents and Pakistani migrants in 1987. Ground down by racial abuse during a time when the violent National Front was on the rise, and constrained by a dominating father who insists he follow a dreary academic path, Javad’s only creative output is writing lyrics for best friend Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman). Yet when Roops, the only other South Asian student at school, presses a Bruce Springsteen tape into Javad’s hand, he finds the lyrics speak to him in a way nothing else ever has.
Cue a movie that juggles coming of age, racial prejudice, family commitments, and job poverty in Thatcherite Britain as themes. Chadha has proven herself many times over as an excellent balancer of social commentary, and Blinded By The Light is at its best when delving into such dramatic heft. Javad’s suddenly unemployed father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir, of Goodness Gracious Me fame), is a superbly written and performed character. Ghir has great chops as a comic actor, but here he exudes a wounded pride, turning to misguided authority when unsure of what to do. Everyone who works in the Khan family must give their earnings to Malik, and he has no truck with pointless artistic aspirations.
Yet as a coming of age story, Blinded By The Light rests on how well you connect with Javad. Kalra is a bundle of teen angst, raging at having no prospects and no respect. His musical epiphany is something to which we can all relate, but Kalra’s performance veers too close to petulance at times meaning that it's harder to root for him than it should be. Similarly, the romantic plot between him and counter-culture Eliza (Nell Williams) is spotty, with Eliza falling into the trap of having tons of character to start with and then melting away into an emotional release valve for Javad.
Unlike the Beatles nostalgia knockabout Yesterday, Blinded By The Light uses Bruce Springsteen songs less as a soundtrack and more as a vehicle for the ability of lyrics and music to transcend background. On the face of it, there is little in common between a young out of place Pakistani boy and a New Jersey American musician. Chadha’s skill and Manzoor’s script wring out the deeper connection that can only be achieved by honest lyrics that weave tales full of meaning for all.
Arguably the movie does this rather too earnestly at times (we get at least two quasi-music videos, and the lyrics frequently decorate the screen to make sure you are paying full attention), but it effectively encapsulates what awakening music can cause.
The father and son tumultuous relationship guide the movie through troubled waters where other plot threads threaten to beach things into subplot bay. The deft skill is that Malik is no ogre, and Javad is no angel: their fires are stoked from an intergenerational culture clash where we as the audience can fully appreciate both points of view. Any split or reconciliation has to be earned to be effective, and Blinded By The Light more than pays its dues here.
Chadha’s ‘feel good with social commentary’ style is well-honed and well delivered in this movie, even if the central performance is a weak lynchpin that can’t quite keep the stage performance blasting on all amps. Yet when the power chords ebb away the bones of family, forgiveness, and ‘tramps like us’ are what harmonise still.
Words by Mike Record