Sundance 2019: Blinded by the Light, by David Bax
Even though Gurinder Chadha’s anthemic, deeply moving Blinded by the Light is, to a large extent, a movie about the music of Bruce Springsteen, it opens with a song more specific to its 1987 England setting, “It’s a Sin,” by the Pet Shop Boys. Our protagonist, Javed (Viveik Kalra), may be only a few minutes of screen time away from falling in love with The Boss but, in the meantime, his best mate, Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman), loves synthpop. Chadha has no interested in positioning Matt’s taste below Javed’s, though. Blinded by the Light‘s compassion and humanism remind us that, when you’re a teenager, your favorite bands often feel like they’re singing directly to, and for, you. No matter the band or artist, everyone who loves music and life as much at this movie does was probably lucky enough to have their own Springsteen.
Javed is a British Pakistani sixteen-year-old whose Karachi-born parents –especially his father (Kulvinder Ghir)–have a pretty strict “My way or the highway” policy that does not include Javed’s dream of becoming a writer. When a school chum (Aaron Phagura) lends him tapes of Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born in the U.S.A., he hears a voice calling to him from across the years and the Atlantic Ocean, assuring him that he’s not alone. With support from his girlfriend, Eliza (Nell Williams), and a fiercely outspoken leftist English teacher (Hayley Atwell), he finds the inspiration to pursue his passion, even if it means friction with his family.
Blinded by the Light‘s opening titles are accompanied by a montage of Thatcher-era Britain, including protests and economic hardships. Before that, even, the prologue shows young Javed writing in his diary about the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The bulk of the story unfolds against a backdrop of, amongst other things, the increasingly vocal anti-immigrant National Front. It feels daring to infuse a John Hughes-inspired coming-of-age story with so much politics but it probably shouldn’t. Chadha understands that love and joy and despair and all the other emotions her movie celebrates are inextricable from the politics of daily existence, especially for a member of a maligned and marginalized ethnic group like Javed.
Javed was far from alone, of course, in struggling to reconcile his late twentieth century British identity from his parents’ more traditional Muslim one. Blinded by the Light‘s most fascinating bit of history, actually, comes when Javed and his sister (Nikita Mehta) attend a “daytimer,” a secret daytime rave popular amongst 1980s British Muslims still under their parents’ yoke. In Chadha’s eyes, the illicitness isn’t the point but rather the vibrant sense of community and shared passion.
Hilariously, Chadha soundtracks the daytimer scene with Springsteen’s “Because the Night.” That’s just one of the many tracks that gets, essentially, its own musical number. Other standouts include Javed wooing Eliza with “Thunder Road” and the “Born to Run” tour of the characters’ hometown of Luton. These flights of fancy help sell the more conventional story beats because, in Chadha’s assured hands, all of life, even for tramps like us, has the potential to live up to your most starry-eyed fantasies.