At the Movies
The Transcendent Power of Music
By Noah Gittell
Maybe for you it was Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell. It could have been Johnny Rotten or Morrissey. Who was the band or artist that, when you first heard them as a teenager, made you change your hair, your clothes, and your life? For me, it was 311, an Omaha-based ‘90s band with a sound I’d never heard before, a rap-rock-reggae hybrid, and a relentlessly positive message that provided an antidote to my inner angst. The first time I heard them, I was hooked. I cut my hair short and dyed it blonde like the band’s lead singer. I bought some shiny clothes like he wore on MTV. I started writing songs and trying to sing like him
For Javed (Viveik Kalra), a teenaged Brit of Pakistani descent living in Margaret Thatcher’s England, it’s Bruce Springsteen. I’ve never been a Bruce fan, but I am a fan of wide-eyed teenagers who love music, which made the jukebox musical “Blinded by the Light” a perfect fit for my earnest heart. Javed is a first-generation immigrant whose dreams of being a writer are perpetually quashed by his strict father (Kulvinder Ghir). A wallflower at school and dutiful son at home, Javed doesn’t want much – just a girlfriend and a little bit of freedom – but feels torn between his individualistic dreams and obligations to his family.
When a friend, the only other Pakistani boy in his school, drops a couple of Springsteen cassette tapes on him, Javed’s world changes literally overnight. Director Gurinda Chadha (“Bend it Like Beckham”) stages a bravura sequence in which Javed wanders his neighborhood during a storm listening to Bruce on his Walkman while the lyrics are projected onto surfaces all around him. It’s visually-striking and unabashedly corny, and it comes closer to nailing the open heart of a teen-age boy than anything I’ve seen. If you’re not smiling by the end of it, you need to start making some changes in your life.
The film’s middle section is a glorious set of heart-thumping sequences in which Bruce’s music lifts Javed out of his life in the shadows. He gets his first girlfriend (Nell Williams), a passionate political activist who needs little convincing to jump on the Bruce bandwagon herself. With the help of an encouraging teacher (Hayley Atwell), Javed commits more deeply to his writing and quickly sees results, earning an internship at the local paper. Throughout these escapades, Javed nearly always has his headphones on and is singing along to the music. It’s a clever device that turns “Blinded by the Light” into something of a neo-musical that can break into song at any moment while still staying grounded in the reality of its characters.
Of course, his father does not understand. He thwarts at every turn Javed’s Bruce-accompanied attempts at freedom. Under his roof, there can only be one Boss. The conflict between immigrant parents from Pakistan and their children has strangely gone from under-represented in pop culture to well-worn territory (thanks to “The Big Sick” and Netflix’s “Master of None”), and while “Blinded by the Light” hardly breaks any new ground in this area, the heartfelt performances and keen direction – Chadha frames her faces in tight close-ups during arguments – draw the film away from the screenplay’s clichés.
Where the film gains extra resonance is in its depiction of the harassment that Javed and his family suffer at the hands of neo-Nazis, who are growing more vocal and active in his small English city. Early on, Javed is chased by a skinhead spray-painting anti-immigrant slogans in his neighborhood, and later, a Pakistani wedding is interrupted by a white nationalist march, where several members of his family are beaten. It speaks directly to our current anxieties, but it also draws deeper connections between the film’s themes. Much like this summer’s Beatles movie, “Yesterday,” which essentially rewrote the history of the band to have their iconic songs sung by a brown-skinned Brit, “Blinded by the Light” reclaims Springsteen, a hero to the white American working-class, for a political platform whose empathy stretches a little further than the local factory or corner bar. It’s a joyous reminder of the power of music to transcend race, nationality, or age, and, for some lucky teenager somewhere out there, it might just change their life.
My Rating: See it in the Theater