Sundance Film Review: ‘Blinded by the Light’

In “Blinded by the Light,” Javed (Viveik Kalra), a Pakistani British teenager living in a drab London suburb in 1987, discovers the music of Bruce Springsteen, and it jolts him alive. From the moment he straps on his Walkman headphones and drinks in the tightrope of ecstasy and despair that is “Dancing in the Dark” (“There’s something happening somewhere…”), the lyrics swirling around him on screen, he’s more than just a born-again Bruce fan. Bruce’s music becomes his fixation, his obsession and identity, his runaway American dream. He just about syncs his heartbeat to that sound (before long, he’s conversing in Bruce lyrics), and it gives him the courage to do things he wouldn’t have dared otherwise — like, for instance, asking Eliza (Nell Williams), a girl in his literature class, out on a date.

The date starts off sort of humdrum, and Javed gets ready to call it a night. But then he puts on those headphones, and it’s like he’s Clark Kent stepping into a phone booth. With “Prove It All Night” blasting in his ears, he approaches Eliza, reciting the lyrics out loud. The fact that he does this is funny, and the movie is aware of that; you’re completely invited to giggle. At the same time, when the song glides into its chorus, locking Javed and Eliza into a kiss, it’s a moment of pure pop opera.

“Blinded by the Light” was directed by Gurinder Chadha, who in 2002 made the sharp and terrific “Bend It Like Beckham,” the movie that put Keira Knightley on the map. It’s a film I was a major fan of, but in the 17 years since I have found just about every movie Gurinder Chadha has made to be disappointingly twee and cute. “Blinded by the Light” marks an exuberant return to form. Based on a memoir by Sarfraz Manzoor (one of the film’s three screenwriters), it’s the sort of unguarded drama they used to make in the ‘80s — a coming-of-age tale of unabashed earnestness — but it’s also a delirious and romantic rock ‘n’ roll parable. I dare say it’s a more incandescent ode to the life force of pop music than any film ever adapted from the work of Nick Hornby.

The music of Springsteen doesn’t just bolster Javed’s courage. It gives him faith — a bone-deep belief in life itself. That’s partly because Javed, for the first time, is doing what he wants to do. He lives with his Pakistani family in a housing complex in the factory town of Luton, where his father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), who’s worked at the local GM plant for 16 years, is a bitter, scolding wage slave who doesn’t think about much beyond paying the bills and making sure his kids resist getting drawn into the decadent British culture around them. (Then he’s laid off, and his mood really sinks.) Javed writes poetry, but he’s shy about it, and more than a tad guilty. He thinks it serves no purpose — which is to say, he’s unconsciously mirroring his father’s dismissiveness.

For Javed, the catharsis of Bruce represents an escape from his domestic doldrums, but it’s about more than that. At school, he’s surrounded by kids who are sunk into the pale fashion-conscious irony of the late ’80s. The editor he approaches at the school newspaper is like the hostile spawn of a Manchester art-rock dandy and Jon Cryer in “Pretty in Pink,” and the movie’s soundtrack is flooded with period British chestnuts like Pet Shops Boys’ “It’s a Sin” and Cutting Crew’s “(I Just) Died in Your Arms.”

All good stuff, but when the Springsteen songs come on, you don’t have to be a rockist to feel the supreme lack of irony, the passionate majesty of it. It’s music so unhip it’s transcendent, to the point that when Javed starts to sport a flannel shirt with cut-off sleeves, or when he and Roops (Aaron Phagura), the fellow Pakistani who first turned him onto the Boss, sneak “Born to Run” into the school DJ booth, and blast it, and the movie suddenly becomes a virtual musical, with Javed, Roos, and Eliza dancing through the city and into the fields, it’s corny as hell and irresistible for that reason. “Blinded by the Light” has the courage of its own shameless teen rock-god sincerity.

It’s also a bracing movie about growing up. Chadha colors in the late ’80s: the cults of Reagan and Thatcher, the rising unemployment in England, the National Front marches that, in hindsight, were the embryonic version of the anti-immigrant fervor that helped lead to Brexit. But she keeps us focused on how this no-hoper vibe is part of what Javed needs to escape. His life is so cloistered that he doesn’t even realize he’s good-looking. He carries himself like a geek, but Viveik Kalra, who has come out of nowhere (apart from this movie, he has appeared in one television series), could be a star. He’s like a skinny Jake Gyllenhaal, with touches of Dev Patel and Andrew Garfield, and he’s such a vibrant actor that you might have to go back to the days when John Cusack was lifting a boom box to find a teenage hero this emotional and compelling.

“Blinded by the Light” takes you to that place where pop can be everything: the promise of a life you don’t have yet, but the music says that you can get it. Javed starts to write, and proudly (more poetry, and an article for the school paper), and what’s going on is that he’s realizing he wants to be a writer. Bruce’s lyrics touch the darkness, but they’re also about a religious promise: that you can escape. And find yourself. That’s just what Javed does, and the speech he gives after winning a writing award is a total blow-you-away moment. It’s about family and forgiveness, about the glory of rock ‘n’ roll, and about realizing that even a tramp like him can walk in the sun.

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Sundance Film Review: 'Blinded by the Light'

Reviewed a Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), January 27, 2019. Running time: 114 MIN.

Production:An Ingenious Media, Levantine Films, Bend It Films production. Producers: Gurinder Chadha, Jane Barclay, Jamal Daniel. Executive producers: Tory Metzger, Renee Witt, Peter Touche, Stephen Spence, Hannah Leader, Tracy Nurse, Paul Mayeda Berges. 

Crew:Director: Gurinder Chadha. Screenplay: Safraz Manzoor, Gurinder Chadha, Paul Mayeda Berges. Camera (color, widescreen): Ben Smithard. Editor: Justin Krish. Music: A.R. Rahman.

With:Viveik Kalra, Hayley Atwell, Rob Brydon, Kulvinder Ghir, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura.

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