Blinded by the Light, the latest film from Bend It Like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha, is inspired by the life of Safraz Manzoor, a Pakistani-British journalist who grew up in an English working class town during the height of the Thatcher era. As a teenager, Manzoor found an unlikely hero in Bruce Springsteen.
Although the American rock star is viewed as a cultural icon today, in 1987's musical landscape – dominated by new wave, post-punk and mall pop – Springsteen was decidedly uncool. Nevertheless, Manzoor was inspired by Springsteen, despite the differences in their backgrounds, to follow his dreams of becoming a professional writer. In 2007, Manzoor released a well-received autobiography titled Greetings From Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N' Roll, upon which Blinded by the Light is based. For the most part, the film succeeds in capturing the immense power that music can have over a teenager's life, even across cultures. But Manzoor's personal story gets bogged down by a formulaic plot and syrupy sentimentalism.
The script, co-written by Manzoor and Chadha with Paul Mayeda Berges, fictionalizes Manzoor by replacing him with Javed (Viveik Kalra), a teenager who feels out of place both in the world – as a Pakistani immigrant in xenophobic Britain – and at home – as a culturally British teenager in a traditional Pakistani Muslim household. When his new friend, Roops (Aaron Phagura), gives him a couple of Springsteen tapes, declaring that "Bruce is the direct line to all that's true in this shitty world," Javed is dismissive at first. But after his father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), loses his job at the local Vauxhall factory, Javed finds a voice that speaks to him and for him in those tapes.
The musical sequences in Blinded by the Light run the gamut from inspiring to cringingly cheesy, but the very first one, set to "The Promised Land" from 1978's Darkness on the Edge of Town, is arguably the best. Chadha throws realism out the window, projecting the words of the song on the walls behind Javed as he listens to the song on his Walkman while a literal storm rages around him. Other musical sequences, like the one in which his mate's dad (Rob Brydon) helps him serenade his love interest, Eliza (Nell Williams) – a character who seems to exist just for Javed to have someone to recite lyrics at – to the tune of "Thunder Road," are less successful, forcing a carefree cheeriness onto songs that are anything but cheerful.
Although not everything lands as well as it's intended in the film, there are some really strong scenes that deal with the popularity of the right-wing National Front in the Thatcher years, including a scene involving a march by the NF in front of a mosque that's chilling not only for its capture of barely restrained hatred and violence, but for how relevant it still is today.
Additionally, the conflict between Javed and his overbearing father – a man trying to put up a brave front in dire economic times, but who breaks down in tears while alone with his wife – captures as much nuance and mixed emotions as Springsteen's best songs about father-son relationships. ("Independence Day" is particularly effective here.)
Despite the film's heavy reliance on Springsteen's music to set the mood – and its propensity for not quite matching the feelings of the songs to the images on screen – Javed's story could be the story of any teenager in love with any band. You don't necessarily have to be a fan of the Boss to enjoy the movie. That said, fans of Springsteen would do well to pack a few extra tissues; just like Springsteen's music, there's a lot of raw emotion underneath the grandiose packaging.
This story is from the Aug. 14, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.