You’d be forgiven for thinking that the music of American icon Bruce Springsteen is an odd choice of inspiration for a Pakistani teenager in Thatcher’s Britain during the 1980s. That, however, was the reality for journalist Sarfraz Manzoor when his family emigrated from the province of Punjab to the Bury Park area of Luton in 1979. Blinded By The Light, co-written by Manzoor, tells that story, with the music of The Boss running alongside an era of political unrest and intolerance. More simply, though, this is an inspiring and joyous tale of a young man finding his voice and his home.
Viveik Kalra plays Javed, who serves as Manzoor’s surrogate. He has dreams of being a writer, which are nurtured by his teacher (Hayley Atwell), but his pushy father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) has other, more practical ideas. A fellow Pakistani in his class (Aaron Phagura) introduces him to the music of Springsteen, which gives Javed a new lease of life. Suddenly, he is able to embrace his creative heart and challenge the racist world in which he is growing up.
As that plot summary suggests, Blinded By The Light is always dangling on the precipice of an abyss of unpalatable cheese. Gurinder Chadha, from the director’s chair, brings colourful flair just as she did with coming-of-age classic Bend It Like Beckham and the honesty and sense of fun in the script keeps its head above the raging torrent of potential schmaltz. There’s a truth and a cultural specifity to everything that happens here, which allows it to be optimistic to a fault without ever slipping into saccharine movie fakery.
Much of this truth comes from the excellent central performances. Kalra is completely believable as an earnest dreamer, while Ghir is a hulking mass of unspoken complexities as Javed’s father. He’s a man brought up to believe that the man of a house should be its unflappable provider, seldom allowing his rich emotional core to burst out into the world. This puts him constantly at odds with his son, whose heart may as well be sewn permanently on to his sleeve. Ghir’s performance is full of physicality, as if he is carrying the weight of his entire family on his shoulders, even while delivering some of the script’s funniest lines.
The film’s 1980s setting is an interesting one, though it feels well-worn given the decade’s ubiquity in modern cinema. An early montage of newsreel footage and cultural highlights, soundtracked by the Pet Shop Boys track ‘It’s a Sin’, feels like an obvious trapping of these movies and sits as inferior to Shane Meadows’ This Is England. Chadha’s film is far better when allowed to evoke its period through the well-observed and obviously lived-in community it depicts.
Then there’s the music. The Springsteen songbook is the perfect evocation of amplifying a working class voice through music, and Chadha’s film recognises the power of those lyrics. Each musical sequence is injected with kinetic energy, whether it’s the lyrics of ‘The Promised Land’ appearing on screen as Javed experiences the infamous hurricane of 1987 or a euphoric rendition of ‘Born to Run’ while running through the streets and fields of Luton. These aren’t straight musical numbers – the cast sing along to Springsteen’s vocals rather than going acapella – and that style is a little weird initially, but you’re itching to join in by the end.
Blinded By The Light is all about the way it makes you feel, and that’s undeniable. Manzoor and Chadha are so adept at bringing the audience into this community – a euphoric excursion to a daytime rave is particularly eye-opening – and so every emotional blow is keenly felt. When a family wedding party bumps into the Nazi salutes and chanted slurs of a National Front march, the tension and anticipation of danger is almost unbearable, whatever the background of the viewer.
Kalra’s performance finds its real high points in the more emotional scenes, managing to sell a slightly undercooked romantic arc with Nell Williams’ spirited political activist as well as his own journey of discovery. Javed’s final speech at a school event is the perfect example of the film’s delicate balance between the cheery and the cheesy. Chadha’s camera wisely slows everything down and minimises all of its stylistic flourishes, allowing Kalra to flex his acting muscles in unforgiving close-up.
But more simply, this is a massively enjoyable film that has real mastery over its tone. The parade of cameo roles – Sally Phillips as a headteacher, Rob Brydon as Javed’s friend’s father – is consistently entertaining and the peppering of iconic music keeps the pace zippy. Blinded By The Light is a real delight of a movie that brings tears of both joy and sadness. Springsteen might have been ‘Dancing in the Dark’, but the cinema was full of the sounds of crying in the dark.
Dir: Gurinder Chadha
Scr: Paul Mayeda Berges, Gurinder Chadha, Sarfraz Manzoor
Cast: Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura, Nikita Mehta, Dean-Charles Chapman, Hayley Atwell, Meera Ganatra, Rob Brydon, Sally Phillips
Prd: Jane Barclay, Gurinder Chadha, Jamal Daniel
DOP: Ben Smithard
Music: A. R. Rahman
Run time: 117 mins
Blinded By The Light is in UK cinemas from 9th August.