Do you know the feeling when you really fall in love with your first band? How magical it is as a kid when you first hear the notes that touch your soul and you blissfully dive headfirst into a musical obsession? When it seems like every word the singer delivers is actually about you? How it evokes this rose-tinted glasses feeling where you're willing to overlook any cheesy flaws because obviously anyone who doesn't understand the brilliance you're listening to just doesn't get it, man?
Blinded by the Light essentially is that feeling distilled into a feel-good, slightly paint-by-numbers movie, which will please most general filmgoers despite its shortcomings.
Based on a true story, Blinded by the Light follows Javed (Viveik Kalra), a Muslim teenager with a controlling Pakistani father (Kulvinder Ghir) who's just trying to find a place where he fits in Thatcher's Britain. And what music would most deeply speak to an alienated British Muslim teen during new wave's 1987 zenith? The American anthems of Bruce Springsteen, naturally.
Javed aspires for a creatively fulfilling life as a writer, but his culturally traditionalist father is actively hostile to anything but a straight-laced life to maximize earning potential. As Javed starts at a predominantly white new school, he's definitely an alienated outsider. His escape from this world is music, with a pair of Walkman headphones always around his neck. When he coincidentally runs into Roops (Aaron Phagura), a Sikh classmate, in the halls, the new acquaintance turns Javed onto the music of Springsteen, which opens up a whole new world. That world is further expanded by a teacher (Hayley Atwell) who believes in him, and by his crush Eliza (Nell Williams).
Blinded by the Light is as much a narrative about Javed as it is an unabashed love letter to the Boss. The soundtrack is constantly blaring Springsteen as our protagonist finds connections to his catalogue for every aspect of his life. When Javed blairs "The Promised Land" on his Walkman while out at night, the world becomes an angsty lyric music video, with the song's words swirling around him and his surroundings. The Boss becomes all-consuming, dictating his worldview, language and fashion style. Kalra's puppy-dog earnesty with the material cements the obsession, allowing the music to be both his refuge and the point where he can build a sense of self.
Under the direction of Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham), Blinded by the Light does capture the colorful spirit of a 1980s period piece, but there's a certain plastic feel to the reality the film presents. There's a sheen to everything that makes Javed's world come across as hollow set pieces instead of a lived-in world. The characters all fit so tightly into well-trodden archetypes (the underdog dreamer, the rebellious girl, the inspiring teacher, the overbearing dad) that none of them come off as particularly human.
And for a narrative based on a true-life story, the movie occasionally flirts with a fantastical brand of magical realism in a way that jerks viewers out of reality. When Javed woos Eliza by singing "Thunder Road" to her in a crowded flea market, and the whole market stops what they're doing to join in the moment, it forces the viewer to either abandon their sense of reality and go along with the sudden random Broadway theatricality, or roll their eyes at the absurdity of it.
Blinded by the Light can be a musical thrill, but it's also a test in how much cheesiness you're willing to tolerate in the name of a feel-good story. ♦