Blinded by the Light movie review: bend it like The Boss

part of my Directed by Women series
MaryAnn’s quick take: Seriously adorkable teen is saved, in 1987, by the rock poetry of Bruce Springsteen. The Boss is still relevant today, as is, alas, the harsh political and economic setting of Thatcher’s Britain.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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Disaffected misfit teen saved by rock ’n’ roll? Woo-hoo! It’s a tale as old as time… or at least as old as, what, 1955? (This one is set in 1987.) Is this ever not good stuff? Is this ever not a story that most weirdos who came of age in the late 20th century can identify with?

There is a comforting familiarity for this GenXer in Blinded by the Light, but I also welcome the hearty rejection of the idea that nostalgia is universally a positive thing. Among all the feel-good danceableness here in the joy and the solace and the sense of being seen that pop music can bring, there’s a reminder for those of us who were teens in the 1980s — *waves hello* — that some important stuff really has not changed much since we were kids, despite that brief respite we got in the post–Cold War, pre–9/11 1990s. That might be a tad depressing, but it is at least authentic. We Xers may never get any decent retro reminiscence, what with everything that was once awful turning up new again these days, but hey, that’s just reality. We don’t need it sugarcoated, and we’ve never expected or wanted that.

Anyway. *sucking it up*

Blinded by the Light Nell Williams Viveik Kalra Aaron Phagura
Stay on the streets of this town and they’ll be carving you up all right. So we dance off the streets!

Luton, England, a working-class town north of London, may today be best known as the location of one of the greater-London-area airports. In 1987, when sensitive, creative 16-year-old Javed (Viveik Kalra) is trying to escape its suffocating suburbanity, its then-great claim to fame, as home to a Vauxhall automobile factory, is primarily notable to him when his Pakistani-immigrant dad, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir: Gone Too Far!, Bend It Like Beckham), is laid off after a long tenure working there. Javed is positively primed, then, when a new school pal, Roops (Aaron Phagura), introduces him to the blue-collar wisdom of Bruce Springsteen. Oh, baby, this town rips the bones from your back…

Look, it’s not that you don’t know in advance pretty much everything that will happen in Blinded: Javed finds his writer’s voice via inspiration from Bruce, finds the courage to stand up to his domineering father, and finds a girlfriend in the equally passionate and creative Eliza (Nell Williams). But foreknowledge cannot ruin one tiny iota of enjoyment you will get out of this deliciously cheesy, wonderfully goofy movie. This is not another song-and-dance revue like Mamma Mia! or another misconstrued ode to the power of pop like Yesterday; there’s way more Springsteen here than there is Beatles in that other movie, for one thing. This is simply a coming-of-age story set to some terrific tunes — tunes the movie appreciates the meaningfulness of — and running on a charming adolescent awkwardness that is often missing from such movies. Relative newcomer Kalra is seriously adorkable as Javed, and at 21, he’s only a few years older than his character; this isn’t another 30-year-old trying to play a teenager. But there’s a gratifying, even endearing lack of Hollywood polish in director Gurinder Chadha’s (Viceroy’s House, Bride & Prejudice) approach, as with a couple of pseudo dance numbers whose odd abortiveness truly mirrors Javed’s confused and conflicted state of mind.

The immigrant’s dilemma has informed all of Indian-British director Gurinder Chadha’s films; this is a sort of thematic sequel to her Bend It Like Beckham.

The freshness amidst Blinded’s familiarity comes in the why of Javed’s confused and conflicted state of mind: he’s torn between his life in Britain, which is all he’s ever known, as a culturally British kid, and the desires of his Pakistani parents — mom Noor is played by Meera Ganatra — for him to adhere to their customs as much as possible. (Javed’s younger sister, Shazia [Nikita Mehta], is also straining against the short leash they have her own; his older sister, Yasmeen [Tara Divina], seems to have given in: the family is about to celebrate her wedding to a groom their parents have chosen for her.) It’s a typical immigrants’ dilemma, moving across the planet to ensure a better life for oneself and one’s children, but then finding it difficult to let those children make that better life in their own way, in the way of the adopted country. This dilemma has informed all of the Indian-British Chadha’s films, most particularly 2002’s Bend It Like Beckham — about a Sikh teen who has to fight her immigrant parents so they’ll let her play football — to which Blinded is a sort of thematic sequel. (This film is based on Greetings from Bury Park, the memoir of Springsteen superfan Sarfraz Manzoor, a Pakistani-British journalist.)

Blinded by the Light
Beans, chips, and The Boss: essential parts of a British lad’s healthy diet.

It’s the immigrant motif that leads it to the unfortunately appalling relevance Blinded has for today (separate, that is, from the clearly terrific relevance of the continued popularity of the working-class poetry of Bruce Springsteen). The economic despair of Thatcher’s Britain is a heavy weight here, as Malik’s unsuccessful attempts to find a new job impact the family and Javed battles his own feelings of guilt in choosing to pursue an education rather than going to work to help out at home (though he can’t find even a part-time a job, either). Even worse is the racism Javed and his family must contend with, which isn’t only small and personal but outright organized: swastika-sporting skinhead National Front members are marching through Luton demanding “their” country “back,” and spraypainting slurs on the homes of the people who don’t look like them. It not very far from today’s Brexit-era Britain, nor even Trump’s America.

We may chuckle at Javed’s Walkman, at Eliza’s Bananarama hair, and at all the oh-so 80s clothes, and we may laugh out loud at Eliza’s Basil Fawlty–esque proud-Tory dad. But there’s plenty here, plenty that’s hateful and horrible, that we haven’t left behind, and from which we can still enjoy the bit of escape and the temporary comfort that art — of the music and the movie kind — offers.

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