Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
BLINDED BY THE LIGHT
Rated PG-13, 117 minutes
Directed by: Gurinder Chadha
Bruce Springsteen’s music is filled with heartfelt, stirring emotion. So it’s about time someone took The Boss’ chords of inspiration and turned them into the most authentic, charming and soaring feel-good film of the year. Co-writer-director Gurinder Chadha, along with screenwriters Paul Mayeda Berges and Sarfraz Manzoor (working from his memoir), brings the connection between music, the listener, and the artist to life masterfully in BLINDED BY THE LIGHT. This coming-of-age crowd-pleaser about a British-Pakistani teen learning to navigate familial obligations while discovering his own voice through a potent connection to Springsteen’s indelible hits has a sweet, satisfying kick. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and your heart will swell ten sizes.
Javed (Viveik Kalra) is fed up with life in the dead-end factory town of Luton, dreaming of leaving for London. He’s in desperate need of hope and a way out. But living in 1987’s dire socio-political straits, facing extreme racism from the National Front and being the son of conservative Pakistani immigrants, there’s not much he can do but stifle his yearnings in favor of his working-class family’s needs. His authoritarian father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) works long hours at a local car manufacturing plant. His caring mother Noor (Meera Ganatra) runs a laundry and sewing business out of their home. His older sister Yasmeen (Tara Divina) is getting married and sacrifices are being made.
Javed’s escape from the suffocating oppression is writing poetry and songs for his best friend Matt’s (Dean-Charles Chapman) new wave band. It’s where he feels he can both blend in and express himself, since no one at home listens to him. Javed’s English teacher Mrs. Clay (Hayley Atwell) spots potential in her shy, bashful student, encouraging him to write more and go deeper. However, life doesn’t begin to click until a fellow student, Roops (Aaron Phagura), lends him two fundamental Springsteen cassette tapes. And once that iconic rock n’ roll begins pouring through those Walkman headphones, it ignites a fire in Javed’s core that burns bright and can no longer be hidden – not from himself, nor from his parents.
Chadha, cinematographer Ben Smithard and editor Justin Krish make these music-infused segments visually compelling. These mini-music videos (which in the late 80’s would dominate MTV airwaves as the film’s soundtrack push) are their version of big action set pieces, aesthetically translating the feeling that grasps hold of our beloved protagonist. How the music first impacts Javed is highly affecting. A storm appears and whips his recently rubbished poems into a whirling tornado. Lyrics materialize out of thin air, swirling around his head, projecting on sides of buildings as he dramatically takes this private act into a public space, listening outdoors, releasing him from his domineering Dad’s confines. It gives him the courage to stand up for himself and change his outlook. Later, “Born to Run” plays over the airwaves after Javed, his crush Eliza (Nell Williams), and Roops’ act of rebellious cheer bleeds into the town’s center. There’s also a rousing number with Matt’s dad (Rob Brydon) that gets the locals jazzed and singing along, speaking to the universality and communal worship of these tunes.
Springsteen’s soundtrack isn’t exclusively utilized for the big numbers. It also plays under other scenes as a complementary track to the unfolding narrative. They may be a smidge on-the-nose, like when “Cover Me” plays as Javed cuts off the sleeves of a red plaid shirt, or when the needle drops on “Hungry Heart,” or when “Streets of Fire” underscores a protest that the family encounters. Still, they’re no less effective in furthering the character-driven action.
Around every turn, we feel the push-pull of Javed’s inner conflict and the cultural ramifications. Kalra’s sincerity and vulnerability really help solidify the hero’s journey. His younger sister Shazia (Nikita Mehta) also shoulders some of his same anguish. She too is yearning to find herself. The backdrop of the unrest of the time period augments the atmosphere. Chadha, Berges and Manzoor build in sweet, subtle moments that dig down deep into the audience’s soul. One huge sacrifice prompts another genuinely moving one.
Perhaps what’s most noteworthy about the picture is that it interweaves a master’s stirring, soul-shaking songs, so timeless and inspiring, with staggeringly personal sentiments about family and finding freedom.
BLINDED BY THE LIGHT opens on August 14.