The personal impact of art is an experience most people have felt dramatically as teenagers. Often, the first exposure to that new art is like a lightning bolt that illuminates recesses of your soul that you never knew existed. You love it so much that you do anything to make it part of your identity: fashion, behavior, philosophy, ideology, etc. You start to see the world through the lens of your favorite art, which can be both good and bad, depending on the art, and most young people aren’t canny enough to realize that they don’t have to espouse every belief of the artists they admire.
Gurinder Chadha mostly eschews the darker implications of art’s influence over the young, and instead celebrates the joy associated with it instead. Based on a memoir by journalist Sarfraz Manzoor (who co-wrote the script along with Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges), Blinded by the Light follows Javed (Viveik Kalra), the teenage son of Pakistani immigrants, who live in Luton, England during peak Thatcher era, when jobs were scarce and class and racial tensions ran high. Javed’s family teeters on the edge of poverty, especially after his father (Kulvinder Ghir) loses his job at the factory where he has worked for years. Javed himself seems resigned to pursue his love of writing in secret while doing his best to be a dutiful son, until one of his classmates, Roops (Aaron Phagura), who is Sikh, turns him onto the music of Bruce Springsteen.
Blinded By the Light and its script captures the experience of falling in love with music so well that it doesn’t matter whether or not you’re a fan of Springsteen. Anyone who has been affected as deeply as Javed has been by Springsteen can relate to the ways he expresses his love, and Chadha manages to capture Javed’s love in big, cinematic ways and also in smaller, more thoughtful ones. There is the visually flashy sequence of Javed literally going out in a windstorm and the words of ‘Dancing in the Dark’ loom over him as the music. When he and Roops manage to blast ‘Born to Run’ on the school PA system while locking out the regular DJ, it starts a long chase and sprint through town in which we see all aspects of life in this small town. More subtly, the conviction that Javed has to the music turns into the inspiration for an essay that opens up his career in writing. We also see how Springsteen’s music opens him up to new experiences, such as getting to know his neighbors, and most importantly for him, finally getting the courage to ask out the girl he fancies, Eliza (Nell Williams).
All of these tropes are familiar to even the most casual moviegoer, and if Blinded By the Light had simply been this story, it would have been predictable fluff. Yet this movie never forgets that this there is a scary and sometimes violent world beyond its immediate scope as a film. We see this when Javed is bullied by a neo-Nazi thug, and a wedding for Javed’s older sister is interrupted by a neo-Nazi rally. Chadha also takes great pain to include the immigrant experience in her story and make it an essential part of the plot. She has quietly become the master of telling the immigrant family drama, from her first feature Bhaji on the Beach to the crowd-pleasing Bend It Like Beckham. Her works are very culturally specific, but her characters are all familiar: the overbearing parents that don’t quite understand the culture their children grew up in, the well-meaning non-ethnic friends who inevitably get the heroes in trouble, etc.
What sets Chadha apart is her great empathy for all people. It would have been easy to simply make the parents the villains and Javed a sympathetic martyr. Yet we see Javed’s father stress about how he will provide for his family. We also see Javed acting selfishly, even if we can understand that he is reacting to his father’s draconian rule. In fact, nearly everyone gets their moment to shine. Perhaps most delightfully, the story reveals that Javed’s sister Shazia (Nikita Mehta), could have been in her own movie with a story very similar to Javed’s.
Because of Chadha’s empathy and the deeply personal story, every predictable, heartstring-tugging moment is well-earned. Blinded by the Light is one of the best recent examples of the coming of age story, and if anyone thinks they are too old to remember what it felt like to be young and in love with music, literature, or art that rocked your world, then Blinded by the Light will bring those memories flooding back.