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Non-Review Review: Blinded by the Light

If the type of jukebox musical codified by the success of Bohemian Rhapsody, Mamma Mia and Rocketman is to become a fixture of the pop cultural landscape, there are certainly worse ways to approach the template than Blinded by the Light.

Many of the beats and structures of Blinded by the Light will be familiar to audiences. Blinded by the Light is a variety of familiar genres blended together; a nostalgic pop period piece rooted in the late eighties, a coming of age story about an insecure teen, a culture clash dramedy about an immigrant family in turbulent times. On top of all that, it is a loving ode to the music of Bruce Springsteen in particular, and more broadly to the power of musical fandom in the life of a wayward teenager.

“Stay on the streets of this town, and they’ll be carvin’ you up all night.”

Blinded by the Light knows the track relatively well. It hits most of its marks. There are few surprises nestled within the run-time of this life affirming story of a young man treating the music of Bruce Springsteen as a spiritual guide. Indeed, there is even a little clumsiness on display. Blinded by the Light makes a strong thematic argument for the importance of family and friends, particularly those around frustrated teenager Javed. However, those characters tend to drop into and out of the narrative, disappearing for extended periods.

However, Blinded by the Light is elevated by infectious enthusiasm. Blinded by the Light – for better and for worse – captures that teenage intoxication of excitement and interest, with a compelling vulnerability and with all the energy of youth. Blinded by the Light is cringy and silly and goofy, but knowingly so. It doesn’t just capture the awkwardness of teenage fantasy, but embraces it. There is a sense that Blinded by the Light is aware of the embarrassment and the stupidity obscured by teenage enthusiasm, and refuses to look away. There’s something joyous in that.

“In Candy’s room, there are pictures of her heroes on the wall,
but to get to Candy’s room, you gotta walk the darkness of Candy’s hall.”

On paper, a lot of Blinded by the Light feels like it was assembled according to a blueprint of rags-to-riches (or insecurity-to-success) stories. Javed is an awkward middle child in a family of immigrants. He has been writing in his diary for almost a decade, poetry and prose along with his own insights into the world. Naturally, Javed is embarrassed by his work and has not shown it to anybody, with the possible exception of his best friend Matt, for whom he writes lyrics about Thatcher and the second-generation immigrant experience.

During his final year at school, a number of events conspire to change Javed’s life. He discovers that the stoic and solemn old neighbour down the street has been genuinely moved by his writing. A teacher at school takes an interest in his work and tries to encourage him to express it. A Sikh student named Roops introduces Javed to the music of “the Boss.” At the same time, Javed strikes up a relationship with a classmate named Eliza, a young activist whose parents are both “no society” Tories.

Along the way, the film leans heavily into the popular memory of Britain in the eighties. A climactic sequence juxtaposes a family celebration against a National Front march, with violence unfolding beneath a campaign advertisement for Margaret Thatcher. The school is populated by kids wearing the absurdly heightened fashions associated with the era – “the Goths”, “the Wham Kids” and even a school DJ who draws his look from Culture Club. A key plot beat hinges on the infamous Michael Fish blooper leading to the Great Storm of 1987.

The soundtrack is absolutely saturated with recognisable pop hits, even outside of the obvious Springsteen influence. Javed’s introduction to late eighties Luton plays against It’s a Sin by the Pet Shop Boys, while a DJ lectures Javed and Roops on how terrible Bruce Springsteen is while I Think We’re Alone Now plays over the school speakers. Confronted with a complaint against Javed and Roops by the DJ in question, the principal sighs, “Even I know Tiffany isn’t all that.”

“We gotta get out while we’re young,
‘Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run.”

All of this is pretty routine and familiar. To be fair, Blinded by the Light has a number of small advantages that give it a little edge over more formulaic installments in the “coming of age” subgenre. There’s a real biting urgency to the portrayal of the late eighties in Blinded by the Light. Beneath the film’s shiny colourful and poppy exterior beats a genuinely angry heart, contemptuous of what the policies of a Conservative government have down to the working class and at the racism stirring in British culture. This provides a weightier context than many similar films.

It helps that at least some of the characters are well-developed and explored. The supporting cast in Blinded by the Light is not as nuanced and engaging as the supporting cast in Booksmart, a film that understood the importance of empathy in maturity; that part of growing up was recognising that other people had their own perspectives and motivations. Blinded by the Light understands this idea in a broad academic sense, and keeps coming back to in small ways. Indeed, Javed folds this idea of community and obligation into his big emotive speech at the end.

This theme of interconnectivity is well seeded and plays consistently throughout. It fits politically as well as personally – this ideal of community spirit and acknowledgement of others is juxtaposed against the harsh politics taking root in contemporary British society. It is also neatly tied back to the character arcs of the film. After an elderly neighbour witnesses Javed and Matt arguing, he advises the emotionally exhausted teenager, “Good friends deserve to be listened to.” Javed is right to want to assert himself, but not at the expense of others.

The film runs into some minor pacing issues in how it pays this idea off. Javed seems to iterate through this journey repeatedly through the film in small episodic adventures. Javed often seems to be moving through a checklist of characters, discovering that their feelings matter as well; his best friend Matt, his sister Shazia. A stronger film – like Booksmart – would find a way to structure these pay-offs so they all coincide, ensuring that Javed learns one large lesson about other people, instead of repeating the same lesson again and again.

“That it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.
I want to find one face that ain’t looking through me.
I want to find one place.”

This is a minor complaint, though. Blinded by the Light understands the sort of compassion that is necessary for a story a like this to work, and so places the bulk of its thematic weight on the relationship between Javed and his father, played by Kulvinder Ghir. The generational clash is familiar within immigrant stories; indeed, a variant of it even played out in Bohemian Rhapsody. However, Blinded by the Light is smart enough to afford Javed’s father some humanity and complexity. He is an obstacle to Javed, but the film allows him his perspective.

Blinded by the Light mostly works on emotional terms. The cast is engaging, especially Kulvinder Ghir in a role that could easily be thankless. Relative newcomer Viveik Kalra is very well cast and commits wholeheartedly to the role. Javed’s energy and enthusiasm propels the film, and Kalra has an incredibly expressive face. Kalra doesn’t necessarily distinguish himself as a young adult actor, especially in comparison to recent leads in similar films, but there’s an emotional quality to his performance that bleeds through. His eyes suggest a profound interiority.

This is all stuff that Blinded by the Light does very well within the established genre frameworks of these kind of films. It isn’t necessarily the best example of any of these things, but it works consistently and clearly enough that the film breezes along. The real innovation of Blinded by the Light – the aspect of the film that truly elevates the film – comes from director Gurinder Chadha. Chadha eschews a lot of the familiar and expected trappings of a jukebox musical to create something that is superficially similar, but much more compelling.

Blinded by the Light lacks the polish of films like Mamma Mia or Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocketman. To be clear, the film still has touches of the magical realism that the audience expects from a musical – Javed seduces Emilia in a marketplace by singing Springsteen with the support of an enthusiastic crowd, and his teenage angst finds expression against the thunder and lightning of a biblical storm to the rhythms of Paradise. However, while the production on the film is top notch, Chadha consciously avoids the sort of epic fantasy associated with such sequences.

“At night, I wake up with the sheets soaking wet and a freight train running through the middle of my head.”

This is obvious in a number of ways. Most obviously, watching the film, it is very clear that characters like Javed and Roops are the only characters aware that they are in a music video. Other characters seem to be able to drift into and out of the fantasy as is their wont. Matt’s father might join Javed to serenade Emilia, but the school football team is frustrated at having their match interrupted by three screeching teenagers singing along to Bruce Springsteen.

Blinded by the Light makes a point to avoid overly choreographed dance numbers and to include actor Viveik Kalra’s voice on the soundtrack with a minimum of aural finessing. The sequences are more impressive than a teenager just singing along with their walkman, but not absurdly so. There is still that sense of groundedness in the film, even as Chadra edits the sequences like a music video and even as Ben Smithard’s cinematography presents a heightened reality.

The result is that Blinded by the Light feels like the rare film to capture that sense of being a teenage fan of a popular musician. Watching Blinded by the Light, as Kalra sings off-key and as he interrupts a Michael Jackson impersonator and as a middle-aged woman chases him down the street, there is a real sense that Kalra and Roops must be genuinely obnoxious to the people around them. Their fandom must be insufferable. Their inability to shut up about Bruce Springsteen must drive everyone else around the bend.

Paradoxically, this candour makes Blinded by the Light all the more endearing. Most people who have lived through their teenage years will look back on their obsessions with a blend of affection and embarrassment, realising in hindsight how tiring their enthusiasm for the object of their devotion must have been for everybody else. That does nothing to diminish the enthusiasm or the passion or the meaning of that obsession. If anything, it grants it a purity. The title Blinded by the Light suggests an almost religious devotion, and the film captures that.

“Now everyone dreams of a love lasting and true,
But you and I know what this world can do.”

Blinded by the Light is so charming and so engaging because it completely understands that it doesn’t matter that Javed can’t flawlessly replicate the voice of Bruce Springsteen or that his obsession borders (and occasionally crosses over into) the problematic. To a certain extent, there is a romance in that, in capturing how strange this all seems to be the people not caught up in it all. Captures the purity of that teenage obsession.

More than that, the willingness to step outside Javed’s fantasy perspective reinforces the movie’s broader themes. Javed has to learn – like all teenagers – to find his own voice without becoming completely self-involved. The manner in which Blinded by the Light captures both the intensity of Javed’s obsession and how surreal it must look from the outside strikes that balance ridiculously well. It elevates a film that is perhaps a little too formulaic in other places.

Blinded by the Light shines so brightly that it’s impossible to look away.

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