With the recent successes of both Rocketman and Yesterday, Bruce Springsteen is the next iconic musician of the 20th century to be the focus of British cinema, in Gurinder Chadha’s latest film Blinded by the Light. Adapted from Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoirs Greetings from Bury Park, the film focuses on Javed (Viveik Kalra), a Pakistani teenager struggling to escape from the influence of his overbearing father (Kulvinder Ghir) and the bleak landscape of Thatcherite Britain in 1980s Luton. However, after being introduced to the music of Springsteen by fellow classmate Roops (Aaron Phagura),Javed’s outlook on his life's possibilities rapidly changes.
This description all sounds like conventional coming-of-age fare. However, this is not simply a two-hour shrine dedicated to the Boss’s greatest hits. Thanks to a carefully-judged tonal balance between feel-good musical energy and potent political commentary, Blinded by the Light evolves into a mature and emotionally resonant cinematic experience.
For those Bruce devotees more enticed by the prospect of hearing his discography on the big screen, however, the film doesn’t disappoint. The film’s musical numbers are vividly brought to life by the aesthetics on display. Justin Krish’s editing explodes the lyrics of The Promised Land onto the walls and roads of Javed’s neighbourhood, whilst Born to Run plays over a mad dash across the streets of Luton, as fist-pumpingly visual as the song itself. The choreography and editing on display in these sequences do ample justice to the mood and intensity of Springsteen’s music.
Whilst the film flirts with the musical genre, the script (co-written by Chadha) never loses sight of the political commentary hidden within the story. The narrative focuses clearly on the Pakistani perspective of living in Britain in the 1980s, astutely depicting the casual racism that Javed’s father’s friend brushes off as “just kids playing” and the intimidation that Javed feels when bullied out of a diner by thuggish teenagers. Most effective is when Chadha links Springsteen’s polemical lyrics to the plight of ethnic minorities in Thatcher’s Britain. As Javed’s family are assaulted by a National Front protest group, Springsteen’s mournful Jungleland lyrics, with its themes of gang violence, are overlaid over the sequence. This use of sound and image demonstrate the narrative’s precision in linking the political relevance of Springsteen’s songs to the tumultuous social climate of 1980s Britain.
Similarly affecting for the audience is the intimate family drama, shown in the convincing central performances. As the lead, Kalra brings a naivety yet also a conviction to Javed that develops as his father’s wishes continue to grate with the empowerment that Springsteen gives him. Ghir as Javed’s father casts a commanding presence that avoids the cliché of the controlling Pakistani father in earlier scenes. Yet he also shows a gentleness in scenes with his wife (Meera Ganatra) which make him a three-dimensional, not stereotypical, figure.
What’s more, instead of concluding with a barnstorming musical set-piece, Javed’s conflict with his family is resolved in a quietly powerful third act that crystallizes the messages of both Springsteen’s music and the themes of the film. Ideas about being true to your identity, respecting your family, and showing a compassion for others are perfectly distilled in the closing moments. This resolution best exemplifies Blinded by the Light’s appeal; recognising the significance of Springsteen’s music but never at the expense of the character drama on display.To paraphrase Springsteen himself, Chadha’s film made me want to wear a smile and walk in the sun long after the credits had rolled.