Blinded by the Light: Review

My introduction to Bruce Springsteen came at the age of 15 in October 1984.  The older kid who’d had enough of delivering the 300+ free-to-every-home weekly paper in our small North East village handed the route over to me, a ‘me’ who’d recently gotten a Saturday job and found it was nice to have some cash. Along with the route she presented me with two thick canvas bags, a home-made skateboard to carry them, and, in an apparent rite of passage moment solemnly handed over a cassette, advising me to get a Walkman and some Deep Heat for my shoulder. I’d never heard of Bruce Springsteen at that point but he (and a fair amount of Deep Heat) got me through that, in my memory at least, never-ending wind and rain lashed Winter – firstly the gifted Born in the USA cassette in my ‘borrowed’-from-my-sister Walkman, soon followed by Springsteen’s earliest albums; at the time available for £3.49 with Nice Price stickers on them from record shops each Saturday lunchtime as and when my pay-packets arrived and culminating in a Christmas present of the much more expensive double  The River. By the following May, I was finishing my ‘O’ level English Language paper (inserting 30+ Springsteen track titles into my exam fiction efforts, before busting out of class for a friend’s father to drive us to St. James Park where Springsteen was playing that very night (The £14.50 ticket price was a lot at the time, but nothing compared to the cost I’d already paid for painting my bedroom wall with red and white stripes and stencilling a very bad image of Bruce over it..nearly 35 years on, there’s still a faint tinge despite the number of times my parents have painted over it…). My obsession has continued all the way through to today and demonstrated on this very site as recently as my review of his new album a month or so ago…

All of which is to say, heading into the advance screening of Gurinder Chadha’s new film Blinded by the Light, I knew I had some history with at least part of the subject matter…what I wasn’t prepared for would be how much I identified with the protagonist and the world portrayed.

Picture of Aaron Phagura, Nell Williams and Viveik Kalra runnign across a school ground
Aaron Phagura, Nell Williams and Viveik Kalra in Blinded by the Light

Javed (Viveik Kalra) is a British teen of Pakistani descent growing up in Luton in the late ’80s. His family is struggling to make ends meet financially and facing the casual and less-casual racism of the day: his father is of the belief it is better, expected of them even, to adopt a ‘head-down’ approach and has a future  planned out for his off-spring but giving his son a wide range of choice in it: he does not expect him to become a doctor like the other Pakistani fathers do, he explains reasonably – he can be a lawyer, a dentist, a … so not much choice then, and certainly not entertaining the idea of allowing his son to  follow his love of writing (The first ring of recognition – my career teacher at school a couple of years before the movie is set was adamant I had lots of choices – army, navy or airforce…but laughed at the idea of wanting to study Cinema at university…).

Starting a new school Javed is introduced to the music of Bruce Springsteen via Roops (Aaron Phagura) already a convert of Springsteen who slips him a couple of cassettes: Born in the USA and Darkness On the Edge of Town which, during the storm Michael Fish promised us all was not coming, Javed listens to on his Walkman, heading out into the stormy tempest of the night with the music playing in his ears and the lyrics literally splashed across the screen in front of us in imagery that reminded me of Jamie Vartan’s set designs for the Cillian Murphy starring production of Grief is the Thing With Feathers at the Barbican earlier this year: it’s a device which works effectively in that initial exposure, less so as it is repeated at other points in the film where the lyrics hammer home verbal points.

From that introduction, it’s obsession all the way for Javed (including, as the Springsteen nerd in me couldn’t help but noticing, reciting the lyrics which affected him most to his new friend Roops the next day having listened to both cassettes – those lyrics coming from The River album which he hasn’t actually heard yet…) As he becomes more and more drawn into the relevance of Springsteen’s words and music Javed grows in confidence as well as frustrations, even meeting ‘the girl’ Eliza (Nell Williams – a Clare Grogan style throwback for those of us old enough to remember Gregory’s Girl with fondness – and excellent in that cool, earnest, right on rebel so many of us crushed on so badly back in our teenage years) and earning the respect of his left-wing idealist teacher (Hayley Atwell) while hiding his desire from, and building his frustrations towards, his father who just does not understand him.

There are a few points where I worried the film was going to take a path I didn’t want it to take: from scene one where we see a young version of Javed playing with his pre-teen friend Matt and them agreeing they’ll ‘be friends forever’. Cut to the present day of the film and I was thinking, please don’t let Matt now be a skinhead…(He isn’t). Then there was the family conflicts (and I know this is based on Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir ‘Greetings From Bury Park‘ so sometimes what seems ‘cliche’ can simply be a case of, ‘that’s what happened…’), the old age pensioner next door, the very real NF marches and actions of the time, and some plot elements which would tip too far into spoiler territory all occasionally made me tense up a little bit:  not because of the drama, but because of the ‘please don’t go there’ element…but ultimately the film either played on them or avoided them enough for me to relax and enjoy. (A long-winded way of saying, it could have gotten a lot more cliched than the finished result)

It’s going to be a bit of a marmite film for viewers – as Harry Hill once joked, “I had one of those quatro fromagio pizzas the other night…it was a bit cheesy…” and there may be an element of too much Springsteen if you’re not a fan of his to begin with. From my perspective that wasn’t a problem, even if I did find the speaking of his lyrics to express key feelings or moments a bit eggy at times. On the night I saw the film though, in an advanced screening made up of a wide range of viewers (in terms of age, ethnic background, prior knowledge of the film and apparently cinema etiquette in general), it was interesting to see the laughs different elements of the movie created: so while my wife and I were delighting in the well-observed ’80’s nuances, the family behind us were laughing at the application of hair dye to the father in a way that suggested it was an activity well known to them.

And that, ultimately, I would say is the winning nature of the film: I think there’s something for pretty much everyone.

It IS worth pointing out what sort of musical this is – because it is something of a unique hybrid: so there is the aforementioned on-screen lyrically supported presentation of key songs through Javed’s listening to them, but there’s also diegetic elements – through videos being shown on screen (including a David Hepworth Springsteen interview I still have on VHS and watched to death back in the day: just count how many times a less-media savvy Springsteen of the time says “y’ know“…), and even a Shawshank Redemption homage takeover of the school radio station to play Born to Run – resulting in the movie’s biggest out-and-out musical moment, and then there’s the utterly bizarre rendition of Thunder Road which sees a headphoned Javed serenading the object of his affection accompanied by a game Rob Brydon and a full cast singing and dancing along in a scene which seemed completely off-tone stylistically to me (and more reminiscent of Sunshine on Leith) but which my wife said was one of her favourite bits..

There’s a nice travel-based montage towards the end of the film which allows for some laughs and in-jokes but doesn’t really fit in the context or flow of the story and the ‘this is them in real-life’ end credits which features so few of the characters we’ve seen it did raise a question for me of how much of what we’ve seen is from the memoir (I haven’t read it) and how much is written for the screen. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter any more than the occasional liberty with song usage for the sake of feeling ( including an effective scene when Javed takes his young sister to an early morning nightclub session where the moviemakers intercut him listening to a Springsteen track which wouldn’t be released for another two decades or so with the pumping ‘more culturally appropriate music‘ around him) because yes, it’s based on a memoir, but no it’s not a documentary. What it IS is a clear testament to the filmmakers’ love and belief in the material they’re working with – both Springsteen’s inspiration and the underlying story it supports.

And for me? The fact so much of it resonated – not just as a Springsteen fan, but as a child of the ’80’s (Skinheads in the North East didn’t care much for ginger kids who liked to write stuff…) and appreciated all the tiny details the makers have instilled in the film more than demonstrated a speech the main character makes towards the climax of the film which, without any spoilers, says all of this – the source and the story can be something that resonates with everyone.


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