Blinded by the Light
Inspired by a Bruce Springsteen superfan, this jukebox-style music flick turns The Boss's hits into a predictable but pleasant coming-of-age tale.
When a song speaks to you — and when it seems like it's speaking only to you — it's one of life's great pleasures. Everyone has a track, album or artist that achieves that feat, and British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor is no different. Born in Pakistan, immigrating to Britain when he was a child and constantly feeling out of place in the southeastern town of Luton, he found solace in one of the big music stars of the 80s. Bruce Springsteen's hit tunes might be so steeped in American life that they've virtually become synonymous with it, but they also captured exactly how Manzoor felt as an outcast teen in the UK. Introduced to The Boss by a school classmate who told him that "Bruce is a direct line to all that was true in this world", he's since seen his idol live more than 150 times, and turned his transformative connection to the singer into a memoir.
With music-led movies echoing across cinemas everywhere of late, adapting this superfan story into a sweet coming-of-age film was inevitable. That said, with Manzoor helping to pen Blinded by the Light's screenplay, the resulting picture has a more personal and authentic air
— than Beatles-centric flick Yesterday and its manufactured "what if?" hypothetical, than big biopics Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, and than forthcoming George Michael-focused festive rom-com Last Christmas as well. But, these types of movies still love a formula. With a soundtrack of well-known songs to bop along to, there are obvious beats to hit. Films about adolescent outsiders struggling for acceptance are also known to favour a template, which leaves Blinded by the Light feeling familiar several times over.
Before he discovers songs such as 'Hungry Heart', 'The River', 'Thunder Road' and 'Born to Run', Javed (Viveik Kalra) — Manzoor's on-screen surrogate — splits his time between trying to meet his dad's (Kulvinder Ghir) expectations and channelling his general angst into his writing. His fiercely traditional father wants him to study hard, get a good job and have a better future than his own, but penning poetry and lyrics for his best friend Matt's (Dean-Charles Chapman) New Wave band stokes Javed's creative fires. Then, fellow South Asian student Roops (Aaron Phagura) lends him cassettes of Born in the USA and Darkness on the Edge of Town. Instead of being tired and bored with himself, Javed is suddenly dancing not just in the dark, but through life.
Finding parallels between Springsteen's songs about working-class troubles, his own family's experiences as rare people of colour in a white, unwelcoming and often openly racist neighbourhood, and his dad's factory-job woes in Thatcher's Britain, the 16-year-old feels as if everything has changed. Matt laughs (partly because his own father, played by scene-stealer Rob Brydon, also loves Bruce), and no one at home understands — but soon Javed is asking out the girl (Nell Williams) he likes, writing essays about Springsteen and making a pilgrimage to his idol's home town.
If underseen 2016 charmer Sing Street had used The Boss's music, rather than original tunes, it might've turned out something like this. Or, if Bend It Like Beckham filmmaker Gurinder Chadha had swapped soccer for Springsteen… actually, in a broad fashion, that's basically what does happen here. Directing, as well as co-writing with her frequent collaborator Paul Mayeda Berges and, of course, Manzoor, Chadha lets Blinded by the Light play out like a classic rock ballad that audiences already know inside and out. Perhaps that's by design, and not just because it suits Manzoor's real-life story. After the tenth or so spin, favourite songs keep resonating because they've become such an easy source of comfort — a sensation that, by sticking to all the usual music-focused and coming-of-age conventions, this agreeable movie mimics.
While viewers are tapping their toes to a jukebox full of Springsteen tracks, and watching Javed navigate a predictable but pleasant path, Blinded by the Light has a clear aim. Even if you're not obsessed with The Boss and his anthems, music speaks a universal language, or so the cliché goes — and, if you can remember when a song has transformed your life, day or mood, then you can get swept up in the film's warm-hearted embrace. Chadha's purposefully amateurish musical-style sequences help, visibly translating Javed's passion to the screen. As the teen and his pals run around town while Springsteen tunes play, their enthusiasm proves infectious. Blinded by the Light plasters that feeling across its frames, weaving it into a likeable, albeit highly recognisable tale about finding your voice after first finding someone else's.
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