Blinded by the Light (2019) Movie Review

“Talk about a dream, try to make it real” reads the epigraph that begins Blinded by the Light. It is a lyric from Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands:” “I don’t give a damn for the same old played out scenes. I don’t give a damn for just the in-betweens. Honey I want the heart. I want the soul. I want control right now … Spend your life waiting for a moment that just don’t come. Well, don’t waste your time waiting.”

When me meet Javed (Viveik Kalra) in Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light, he has not yet heard these lyrics. But they describe the feelings in his heart: the youthful yearnings to escape his hometown of Luton, the desire to no longer be part of his patriarchal household.

Javed is studying so that he can get into university and leave Luton behind. In his spare time, he writes poems that he feels are not very good but that he feeds to his friend Matt’s (Dean-Charles Chapman) band as lyrics. His English teacher (Hayley Atwell)—his father (Kulvinder Ghir) thinks he is studying Economics—encourages him to continue writing, as it could lead him to a career. But Javed knows deep down that his writing and his aspirations to leave fly in the face of his father’s wishes. When his father loses his job, these ambitions become even deeper pipe dreams.

When Javed first turns on a tape of The Boss’ music—mind you that it is 1987, and most kids his age already think Springsteen is old news—it is a life-altering epiphany. As depicted in the film, it might as well be literally earth-shattering. In the night, almost hurricane-force winds whipping around him, picking up scraps of paper carrying the poems he threw away in angsty disillusionment just minutes prior, Javed finds what he’s been missing: someone to tell him that his ambitions are not meaningless.

(It is important to note that the film proceeds to show multiple people in his life that pointedly tell him not to give up on his dreams because his ambitions are not meaningless and his talent is worthy. But, you know, he needed The Boss to give him that inspirational push first, so…he becomes obsessed with The Boss.)

What follows from Javed’s a-ha moment in the windy night is a bubbly, at-times-too-sappy crowd pleaser of a coming of age comedy. Until it isn’t that anymore. And then it is that again.

The film’s script (co-written by Chadha with her writing partner and spouse Paul Mayeda Berges) cannot quite square the circle of tone that it sets up for itself. For a film that will take its time for characters to break out into song-and-dance karaoke of Springsteen’s hits, it has an ambitious narrative scope. Mixed up in Javed’s teenage story are more heavy themes related to 1980s conservative Britain, which includes a rise in inequality and an unemployment crisis.

This makes for a nuanced sense of place and time which Chadha captures very well. Stark instances of racism against Pakistani people are not shied away from, but plant seeds for one of the film’s most striking sequences. Indeed, the film’s most spectacular shot, coming at the end of that sequence, shows the specter of Margaret Thatcher looming over not just Javed but the entire town he calls home as “Jungleland” fades out.

A shot like this should illustrate why Javed is so determined to leave Luton behind, even if it is just one of the factors contributing to his desire to escape. However, this sequence and others like it feel disconnected from the segments of the film that relish in the very Bruce-ness of the film’s subject matter. The romantic subplot is too cutesy and hokey to stack up side-by-side with the intensity of the depictions of anti-Muslim hate.

Yet, while the film does fail to completely craft a coherent two-hour film that can both provide the audience a glimpse at the joy in Javed’s heart when he hears Bruce Springsteen and a glimpse at the pain experienced in Thatcher’s Britain, the final message of the film allows for a resolution where both can still exist, albeit unevenly.

See, for Javed (and likely for the real-life person he is based on) Bruce Springsteen was a symbol of an American Dream long after the “American Dream” was a tried-and-true patriotic concept. The music speaks to Javed not just because it calls out to his teenage angst and his feeling of being trapped, but also because the American Dream of Springsteen is one that feels that pain which is felt in the absence of the “American Dream” without giving up the hope that dreaming can lead to something greater.

Javed transplants this American Dream concept and refocuses it on Luton, which, in a way, absolves Blinded by the Light of the jarring nature of its dramatic tonal shift. If anything, the final monologue Kalra delivers (and, to be clear, Kalra is a standout talent in this, his first big screen role) amplifies the film to a height that I didn’t think it would reach. It at once concedes that the unabashed bubbliness of its Bruce Springsteen love is corny and refuses to apologize for it.

Javed’s “American Dream in Luton” is an illusion, one fueled by his over-emphatic love for Springsteen’s lyrics, but it is only an illusion insofar as it is an ideal, an ideal through which the negative socio-political reality may be overcome. In effect, you need to run around the city with your lover and your best friend shouting the lyrics to “Born to Run” in order to have the hope to face the bigger obstacles life has planted farther down the road.

 

Blinded by the Light: B

 

 

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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)

 

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