'Blinded by the Light': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Nick Wall/Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A shamelessly corny crowd-pleaser.

'Bend It Like Beckham' director Gurinder Chadha tells the story of a British-Pakistani kid who falls in love with Bruce Springsteen's music.

A British teen born to Pakistani immigrants has his life changed by Bruce Springsteen in Blinded by the Light, an '80s-set coming-of-age tale directed by Gurinder Chadha and inspired by the life of British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor. Surely the most crowd-pleasing film Chadha has made since that soccer pic that made Keira Knightley a star, Light is just as faithful to formula as Bend It Like Beckham and just as reliant on its lead's likability; here, newcomer Viveik Kalra radiates enough guileless enthusiasm to carry viewers past the film's rough patches. A bigger than expected commitment to the works of the Boss may help sell the pic Stateside, even if cinephiles will grumble that the best Bruce-related feature of the last 12 months was Jim Cummings' barely released Thunder Road.

Kalra plays Javed, a 16 year-old in a forgotten corner of Thatcher's England. He's kept a journal for years, writes poetry and is part of no one's tribe at high school. His expression is so permanently meek, nobody notices he's pretty handsome. The crummy town of Luton seems to have received the worst of '80s fashion and hair, but music supervisor Pete Sa makes sure the ambient soundtrack isn't just the usual suspects (Level 42, anyone?).

Back at school after summer break, Javed hits the trifecta: His new English class has a real-talk teacher (Hayley Atwell) who's about to discover his talent; one of his female classmates, Eliza (Nell Williams), will soon do the same; and in the hallway he collides with a stranger whose Walkman contains "the direct line to all that's true in this shitty world." Roops (Aaron Phagura), befriending the lonely Javed, puts cassettes of Born in the USA and Darkness on the Edge of Town in his hands and knows the music will do the rest.

The film's subsequent scenes are, well, corny as hell. But they're overwrought in the true way that falling hard for a song or a band can be. Overwhelmed by skinhead racism on the street and the constraints placed on him by his constantly striving father, Javed finds himself outside in a nighttime windstorm, his Walkman on and his psyche engulfed by "Dancing in the Dark." Lyrics and images are projected on the buildings around him, approximating the sensation of getting lost in the space between two headphones. Saul on the road to Damascus was not more transformed than Javed is.

Becoming obsessed with this new music at the same time that others are growing curious about his writing, Javed is drawn to denim jackets and red bandanas; his hair gets taller. And, awkwardly, he starts quoting Springsteen lyrics in any circumstance, sometimes loudly. The film doesn't commit to fully turning these moments into movie-musical breaks, and it doesn't present them realistically either; some scenes work better than others, and there have definitely already been too many of them when Javed and Roops hijack the school radio station, put "Born to Run" on the loudspeakers, and run off into a music-video interlude that, to use the parlance of the time, is barf-worthy.

Chadha might've found more artful ways to show how the songs that have burned into Javed's brain help him stand up to racist bullies or lean in to kiss Eliza. Then again, deciding that someone else's art defines your life is rarely cool, and this particular music nerd — who maintains his loping, beatific energy until life comes down pretty hard on him — seems born to run his mouth off whenever a Springsteen lyric is even remotely applicable to the situation.

(Lost opportunity: Though set in 1987, the film ignores Tunnel of Love, the songwriter's most underrated record, which was released that year. Javed's movement from meekness toward self-determination screams out for a scene in which he finds his boldness in "Tougher then the Rest.")

Javed's home life is painted in broad strokes but is honest, a story we've seen a million times of parents who expect their children to ignore the culture they've brought them to and honor the values of the land they left. Playing the stern father, Kulvinder Ghir has a fairly thankless job, but the character is deepened somewhat by unexpected job loss. What good is leaving your homeland to make a better life for yourself, if you wind up not being able to pay for your daughter's wedding?

Father and son have a predictable falling out — predictable, but not as contrived as some of Javed's other emotional crises. The film takes a quick breather back in Springsteen-nerdville before moving toward resolution: Here, thanks both to Kalra's performance and to some of the best writing in the screenplay, Blinded by the Light ties it all together.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production company: Bend It Films
Cast: Viveik Kalra, Hayley Atwell, Rob Brydon, Kulvinder Ghir, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura
Director-Screenwriter: Gurinder Chadha
Producers: Jane Barclay, Gurinder Chadha, Jamal Daniel
Executive producers: Paul Mayeda Berges, Hannah Leader, Tory Metzger, Tracy Nurse, Stephen Spence, Peter Touche, Renee Witt
Director of photography: Ben Smithard
Production designer: Nick Ellis
Costume designer: Annie Hardinge
Editor: Justin Krish
Composer: A.R. Rahman
Casting director: Sue Figgis, Kirsty Kinnear
Sales: Joanna Korshak and Christopher Slager, Endeavor

113 minutes