Blinded by the Light: Promised Land, by Tyler Smith
When I was 15, I watched Citizen Kane for the first time. I had heard that it was considered one of the best movies of ever made, so I decided to give it a try. While I was probably too young to fully appreciate the artistry of the film, the themes cut me to the core. The story of a man who somehow felt incomplete despite his tremendous wealth – and his disastrous lifelong campaign to fill that void – spoke to me in a way no film ever had. I told my friends about the film and, unsurprisingly, they weren’t exactly thrilled to watch a drama from 1941 with me. And so I was mostly alone in my love for the film and its director, Orson Welles.
What exactly does that have to do with Gurinder Chadha’s new film Blinded by the Light? Nothing, really. And everything. While the film does have some glaring narrative shortcomings, its ability to capture the transformative power of art and the deeply personal connection between artist and audience is second to none. Plenty of movies have been made about the eye-opening nature of art, but few have so thoroughly embraced the joy we can feel when an artist would appear to be speaking directly to us.
Taking place in 1987 Britain, Javed (Viveik Kalra) lives on the fringes of both society and his own family. His Pakistani heritage distances him from his peers, but his interest in poetry makes him the black sheep of his very traditional family. On the advice of his father (Kulvinder Ghir), Javed tries to keep his head down and go unnoticed. That all changes when an acquaintance (Aaron Phagura) introduces him to the music of Bruce Springsteen, whose working class roots and darkly-hopeful lyrics seem to echo everything that Javed has been feeling lately. Exhilarated that somebody out there seems to really “get it”, Javed is confident and eager to play a more active role in his own life.
Javed’s resulting rebellion against the world around him unfolds pretty much as one would expect. He clashes with his father, finds a girlfriend, stands up for himself, and so on. The story itself isn’t going to blow anybody’s mind. You’ll likely be able to predict the story beats well in advance and be proven right over and over again. However, narrative originality – or lack thereof – should always be treated as largely neutral in film, as the way a director chooses to tell the story is what makes the real difference. Gurinder Chadha mostly manages to breathe new life into what would otherwise be a by-the-numbers tale of inspiration, almost solely through her choice to eschew realism and convey Javed’s boundless energy through every means available to her, including extended musical sequences.
Where the film does fall short, though, is in its character work. We get a strong sense of who Javed is, and his father is given enough backstory and motivation for the audience to feel invested. But every other character is paper-thin, defined solely by their support or opposition to Javed. Take the character of Roops, the classmate that first introduces Javed to Springsteen’s music. I don’t know who he is or what drives him. I couldn’t tell you anything about his personality or emotional defaults. I know only that he likes Bruce Springsteen and encourages Javed to like him, too. That is the beginning and end to his character. Javed has a best friend named Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) who is meant to be a vital part of the film, but who is so utterly inconsequential that, when he was off screen, I forgot the character even existed. The same goes for Javed’s other family members, who emerge from the background just long enough to affirm his life choices, only to recede back into insignificance, their narrative purpose having been served.
This is to take nothing away from Viveik Kalra, who plays Javed with just the right balance of youthful enthusiasm, anachronistic wisdom, and haughty superiority. It would be very easy to treat Javed’s newfound love of Springsteen as unwaveringly positive, but Chadha and Kalra wisely realize that passion can quickly turn into obsession, which can give way alienation. There can be a distancing effect to being creatively-minded; a hopefully-temporary season in which one feels somehow better or more aware than everyone else. Part of Javed’s arc is the realization that a creative awakening shouldn’t set him apart from the world, but enable him to better plug back into it.
In the end, the film doesn’t throw a lot of curveballs at the audience, but is just so relatable that it’s hard to resist. Everybody can watch Javed’s story and see themselves in it. You may not be a Bruce Springsteen fan – just as I’m not – but the film isn’t actually about that. It doesn’t have to be Springsteen, or even music. Eventually we all encounter that thing that helps us make sense of the world. It could be fishing, baseball, knitting, or any other thing that brings us comfort while also igniting our passion for living. For me, it was Orson Welles and Citizen Kane. For Javed, it was Bruce Springsteen. It’s different for everybody, but underneath that difference is a commonality of experience that can bridge the gap between old and young, male and female, artist and audience. Blinded by the Light tells a story that is so specific that it somehow manages to be universal.