Every teenager has a moment when they step outside from their parents’ expectations and begin to realize themselves as an adult person. And every artist has a moment when they stop imitating and echoing their influences and begin to develop their own voice and perspective. These moments can be exhilarating and terrifying in equal measures, often arriving without any kind of fanfare or the melodramatics that Hollywood has trained us to expect from any monumental occurrence in life.
Blinded by the Light, now on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD, is as bombastic as you’d hope and expect for a film fueled by the music of Bruce Springsteen, but it is mercifully free of those kinds of histrionics. Instead, writers Sarfraz Manzoor (working from his own memoir), Gurinder Chadha (who also directed), and Paul Mayeda Berges understand that they don’t need to add world-ending stakes to their story because when you’re a teenager, everything feels like the end of the world.
There may no greater poet of the ecstasies and angsts of teenaged longing than Springsteen, whose music has provided a soundtrack to restless dreamers and shattered hearts for decades now. Whether it’s the promise of righteous freedom in “Born to Run”, or the whispered lust of “I’m on Fire”, or the way the street epics like “Jungleland” and “Backstreets” elevate the clashes between grimy street corners to mythic status, when The Boss sings of his own pleasures and pains, you feel like he’s speaking to you, like he’s somehow found his way into the places of your heart you were sure no one else could see. But that’s OK because now, having been seen, you don’t have to be afraid or ashamed. Because you’re not alone.
That’s the discovery young Pakistani-British boy Javed (Viveik Kalra) makes when a buddy slips him a couple Springsteen cassettes and unwittingly unleashes a life-defining obsession. The year is 1987, and Britain is getting bleaker while the fashion and musical tastes get gaudier. With his headphones forever around his neck, Javed cocoons himself in a layer of synth safely away from his demanding father (Kulvinder Ghir) and the constant headlines featuring Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s economic downturn, and a rising tide of far right white supremacy.
(Sidenote: Boy would I feel a lot better if this movie wasn’t quite so relevant.)
Javed’s awkward teenage blues get even more awkward when he begins attending a new school with only one other South Asian student, the aforementioned Roops, (the exceedingly charming Aaron Phagura) a Sikh who travels everywhere bedecked in jean jackets and American flags, just like The Boss. When Roops slips Javed a couple of Springsteen’s tapes, it’s like a bomb that both finally enables Javed to articulate his own dreams and needs, and also threatens to upset the very delicate ecosystem in his home.
While Springsteen’s music is the throughline, (he apparently gave the filmmakers free rein to access his catalogue, which they take full advantage of) Blinded by the Light is happily free of much more plot mechanics. Instead, Chadha is more interested in the ways relationships change and evolve when you’re a teenager and you begin to push back against the world. At the same time that Javed is figuring himself out thanks to Bruce and the support of his new English teacher, (a luminous Hayley Atwell) his father is laid off, plunging the family into uncertainty, his relationship with his oldest friend Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman, unrecognizable from his stint as Tommen Baratheon on Game of Thrones) begins to fragment, and begins a new relationship with the politically-active Eliza (Nell Williams, who funnily enough played Young Cersei on Game of Thrones).
Crucial to my enjoyment of the film, outside of the nameless skinhead pieces of shit stalking the neighborhood, there is no villain in Blinded by the Light. Not everyone is immediately lovable, but even the prickliest of characters is given a moment to let their guard down. Ghir in particular is remarkable, finding the isolated moments of vulnerability within a man who easily could have been a caricature of Angry Father Who Doesn’t Get It. It’s because we have these rays of insight into his heart that the sequences when he closes it sting so terribly, and why the times when he finally opens himself to his son and the world matter so much.
And it helps that Chadha and Manzoor are clear-eyed about the ways in which Manzoor’s avatar can be abrasive in his own ways. You root for the kid, but Chadha does not attempt to downplay or apologize for his moments of weakness or obnoxiousness. Those are the mistakes you have to make as a kid in order to grow into an adult, and Chadha’s direction and Kalra’s performance ably illustrate Javed’s halting progress from navel-gazing child and towards being an empathetic adult.
Chadha’s probably best known stateside for her earlier film, the super-charming Bend It Like Beckham. It’s been a while since I watched that one all the way through, but I remember it having that same warmth and empathy, spilling over with love for even the most flawed and ridiculous of characters. There are times in Blinded by the Light where things threaten to teeter into the cloying, particularly when the film depicts the quoting/singing of Springsteen lyrics as a girl-getting, bully-stopping, crowd-thrilling superpower, but Chadha ably undercuts this tendency with frequent, at-times shocking reminders of the ugliness happening around the edges of the frame.
Things are of course headed for your classic happy ending, but Chadha earns those tears and cheers fair and square, never reaching for the easy answer or empty epiphany to make things work out perfectly. Life is messy, and even as Blinded by the Light hits the classic beats of a coming-of-age story, it never betrays that messiness or suggests that the kinds of problems presented here can be solved by a song.
But if a song can’t save the world, it can be enough to save a life, or at the very least point a life out of darkness and towards someplace just a bit brighter and more hopeful. Blinded by the Light doesn’t present Springsteen as saint or savior, but as an artist who was exactly who this one kid needed to hear at the exact right time.
By telling so specific a story, Blinded by the Light captures something universal about the teenage experience, regardless of which side of the pond you grew up, or which artist it was that first woke you up to who you are and who you want to be.
Audiences let this one slip by in theaters. Don’t make that mistake now that it’s available at home.