Blinded by the Light review – growing up with the Boss

An 80s Asian-British teenager finds solace in the music of Bruce Springsteen in Gurinder Chadha’s buoyant but uneven crowd-pleaser

“Make loads of money, kiss a girl, get out of this dump.” The year is 1987, the dump is Luton, and the humble dreams belong to British Pakistani teenager Javed, aka “Jay” (Viveik Kalra, handsome and likably guileless). An aspiring writer with a proud, domineering father, Javed’s desire for independence is further stirred when he starts sixth-form college and a new friend, turbaned Sikh Roops (Aaron Phagura), introduces him to the music of Bruce Springsteen.

Already considered unfashionable dad rock by the late 80s (“Synths are the future,” insists best friend Matt), the Boss might seem a slightly strange beacon for Jay to be drawn to (or indeed blinded by), but the film, a coming-of-age tale about the escape route that music can provide for a suburban teenager, is based on the memoirs of journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, and also co-written by him. Manzoor has seen Springsteen in concert more than 150 times, and has previously explained that he never had a cool role model to influence his tastes.

Let it be said now that writer-director Gurinder Chadha’s unabashed “feelgood” jukebox musical is not cool. It is gleefully dorky, hopelessly earnest, sincere, quite possibly to a fault. It unfolds as a series of Springsteen-soundtracked set pieces, each shamelessly engineered to maximise catharsis, cheering and possibly weeping from the audience.

The characters and the world around them feel slight, but the emotional rush is real as Jay leans in for his first kiss while Prove It All Night roars; a crowded street party that erupts into a chorus of Thunder Road has a similarly joyful effect. To her credit, Chadha knows how to please a crowd. The film’s puppyish enthusiasm – for both Springsteen and the unifying power of music – is potent.

But the reliance on his back catalogue is both its greatest strength and its biggest weakness. The lyrics to Dancing in the Dark appear as on-screen text, flashing up karaoke style, spinning around Jay’s head. Jay begins unironically reciting Bruce lyrics in place of dialogue. Song cues become intolerably literal; Independence Day marks a falling out between Jay and his father, Malik (Goodness Gracious Me’s Kulvinder Ghir). There’s a kinship between Springsteen – another working-class dreamer from a small town who suffers a tumultuous relationship with his conservative father – and Jay, but it’s as though Chadha doesn’t trust her audience to draw a connection between the two.

The director has always been fascinated by dual identity; her debut was 1990’s I’m British But, a wry, sparky documentary made for Channel 4 that celebrated British-Asian identity, while 1993’s Bhaji on the Beach dealt with generational conflicts between Indian women. Her breakout film, Bend It Like Beckham, harnessed British football fanaticism to make a persuasive case for multiculturalism, while Bride and Prejudice brilliantly reimagined Jane Austen’s matchmaking Mrs Bennet as an interfering Indian mother. It’s interesting that Chadha’s most recent films – 2017’s Viceroy’s House, an uncritical portrait of the Mountbattens during India’s partition, and now the slickly commercial Blinded By the Light – are both period pieces centring on the British aspect of her own British Asian-ness. “I thought I was British,” snaps Jay to his father.

Chadha made the film in response to Brexit, presumably hoping that audiences would find its one-size-fits-all optimism healing in our era of division and austerity. Certainly, there are parallels between the current political climate and the film’s setting in Thatcher’s Britain, such as the recession that humiliates Malik, leaving him unemployed, or the racists who urinate through a neighbouring Pakistani family’s letterbox.

Chadha takes great pains to emphasise the film’s universality, sometimes at the expense of the cultural specifics that made her a household name. In fact, this critique is built into the narrative: Hayley Atwell’s well-meaning teacher gives Jay a low essay grade, telling him she’d hoped for more about “the Indian soldiers who missed home and cooked in the trenches”.

Both Jay and Chadha are more than their ethnic identity. Yet in a scene that sees Jay’s sister chopping onions while wearing swimming goggles, or hearing Roops refer to his loner bestie as “Bilal no mates”, there’s a glimmer of the younger, spikier, more rabble-rousing Chadha. “What’s provocative about Javed?” deadpans his anarchist girlfriend Eliza (Nell Williams) to her white, middle-class parents. The funniest, sharpest gags in Blinded By the Light are the ones that could only have been written by an Indian woman.


Simran Hans

The GuardianTramp

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