Review: Blinded by the Light (2019)

Great art can resonate in surprising ways. We’ve been rather inundated recently with films praising the ‘all-time great’ musical artists with nary a critical thought toward their legacies. Yesterday feared treating The Beatles as anything less than timeless and indisputably great while people seemed happy to let Bohemian Rhapsody drag Freddie Mercury’s personal life as long as the film offered up the band’s greatest hits in a glorified package.

Few of these nostalgia pieces actually explore why these particular artists resonated with the masses – it’s always presented as some objective quality that would be present even if their work was displaced from the artist and period. Blinded by the Light offers a bit of fresh air by actually diving into the specifics of one young man’s passion for music. Being a fan of Bruce Springsteen will certainly add to this movie’s appeal, but it rarely comes off as a grandiose statement about the value of his music – this is a personal journey.

Javed is a British-Pakistani teenager struggling to survive within a family structure that places each member as subservient to the patriarch, who in this case is Javed’s father Malik. At his new school, he meets a Sikh student named Rooks who is currently obsessed with Springsteen. Javed ends up checking The Boss out one melancholy night and finds a similar love that pushed him to find a renewed interest in his own writing – unfortunately, his father does not approve of these artistic pursuits.

A lot of the elements are familiar, but Blinded by the Light goes about the subject matter with such unapologetic passion that it works. I’m particularly fond of Javed’s first listen, the lyrics popping into the air as he breathes in each word. He ends up rushing outside to take in this raw emotional release. This sequence highlights how this music manages to resonate despite the seemingly massive differences between Javed and his idol; despite Springsteen’s tendency to reference specific American tropes, certain words are highlighted as they relate to Javed’s own experience. These musical moments are pushed to the point of being over-dramatic, such as when Javed leans against a building as the lyrics are projected onto the side, but a charm of this work is how utterly sincere it dares to be.

Perhaps it’s a stroke of luck that Springsteen was the musician that caught Javed’s ear back in 1987. As far as the ‘great musicians’ of the 20th century go, few seem as commonly miscast as The Boss. His own unabashed Americana branding has warped him into some sort of patriotic symbol for the under-informed – as Javed is quick to point out, “Born in the U.S.A.” is an anti-Vietnam song with a coldly ironic title chant. Blinded by the Light is a story of the misunderstood.

The film dives into several diverse topics from its late-80s setting. Perhaps most disquieting is the strikingly familiar political unrest as it explores an explosion of Neo-Nazis in the highly conservative Thatcher era. Javed and his family are obviously dragged into this, Pakistani immigrants being a popular target of hate crimes. The film tackles these tensions in less heightened states as well, such as a dinner where Javed’s girlfriend’s parents openly accuse her of dating Javed purely to get under their skin. “Born to Run” certainly seems a convincing anthem for such misplaced youth.

To really counter the trap of Yesterday‘s questionable and borderline toxic ideology, Javed is actively portrayed as a bit of a jerk when it comes to his obsession. He insults a friend by dismissing synthesizers, despite the movie starting with him happily enjoying “It’s a Sin” by the Pet Shop Boys before he is introduced to Springsteen. Javed is given room to grow, to learn that artistic resonance is a personal experience and that Springsteen speaks to him in a way that might mean little to the people around him.

Similarly appealing to the use of Pet Shop Boys is the range of fashion styles. Javed’s discovery of jean jackets is matched by a tour of competing scenes around the lunch room. It’s the type of cheesy movie magic where every major style of the era seems to cross the camera at once, but it’s pretty effective at capturing the period and showcasing worlds untouched by the artist at the center of this story.

While I truly dug the sincerity with which this film carries itself, I find some of Chadha’s direction to be questionable. Javed’s discovery of Springsteen is reduced by flashbacks to scenes that only happened minutes earlier; does she think us incapable of remembering the opening sequence that we just sat through? Additionally, when we’re not getting carried away with the magic of the songs, a lot of these sequences have rather plain presentation. The themes and narrative easily outshine the technique.

Blinded by the Light is an inspiring biopic that is compelling in its unabashed sincerity. While it may fall into the usual stylistic tropes, the story at its center is strong enough to largely escape overt familiarity. While tackling such specific topics as Springsteen, 1980s Britain, and being a Muslim in the West, Blinded by the Light hits more universal truths by exploring musical appreciation in general, the seemingly cyclical nature of far-right extremism, and living with a controlling father. To be simultaneously specific and universal is one of the keys to becoming a great work of art – if Chadha had put a bit more consideration into the presentation, this would have been one.

3.5 Stars Out of 5

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