' ' Cinema Romantico: Blinded by the Light

Monday, August 26, 2019

Blinded by the Light

Finding your voice as a teenager is both the most essential quest and the hardest thing to do. Even if you have some sense of self it can be drowned out by the surrounding cacophony of parents, peer pressure, the problems of the outside world, etc. Music, then, so accessible provides a stand in for your voice when you’re struggling to find it. That struggle defines the protagonist of Gurinder Chadha’s “Blinded by the Light”, Javed (Viveik Kalra), a Pakistani teenager in 1987 living in the London suburb of Luton where he is frequently reminded in explicit terms that he is not wanted. As the movie opens, he rides his bike while images of the Thatcher years appear all around him through split screen effects, suggesting the music piping through his omnipresent earphones as a coping mechanism. The song, though, “It’s a Sin” by The Pet Shop Boys, suggests, sadly, how he sees himself, or how he’s told to feel about himself, and foreshadows his journey to discovering the ultimate Springsteen truth: “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”

Javed’s Road to Damascus doubles as the high school hallway where his emergent best friend Roops (Aaron Phagura) gives him the word of Bruce Springsteen by way of a couple cassette tapes. When Javed finally cues them up one dark and stormy the night, the spiritual kinship is instantaneous as Bruce’s desperate, searching “Dancing in the Dark” lyrics fill not only the speakers but the screen, giving brilliant rise to the idea that these words are what Javed wants to say and can’t. And if the accompanying hurricane might be overwrought, it not only mirrors the overwrought tempest brewing not just inside Javed but every teenager but the lyrics for the scene’s other song, “The Promised Land”: “Blow away the dreams that break your heart.”

Before long Javed has filled his bedroom wall with Bruce posters and bought a jean jacket and cut his sleeves to look just like his idol circa the “Born in the U.S.A.” Tour. Kalra, though, is not content with letting the clothes do all the work. If early on he is tightly coiled and hunched over, clutching his trapper keeper, as the music takes hold he seems to grow into his body and walk not with a swagger but a looseness leading directly into a relationship with a political activist schoolmate, Eliza (Nell Williams), and confrontations with a practical father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), who wants his son to focus on economics, not English, to blend in and not stand out, culled from Sarfraz Manzoor’s book on which the movie is based (and who co-wrote the screenplay with Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges) but also rhyming with the real Springsteen’s infamous father/son relationship.

This paternal Pakistani standoff calls to mind Ken Loach’s “A Fond Kiss.” Loach, however, is more Kitchen Sink and Chadha, famous for “Bend It Like Beckham”, prefers a Bruce Goes Bollywood approach. And while that doesn’t mean “Blinded by the Light” fails to educe real emotion, as Ghir invests certain moment with an impressive wounded dignity, there is nevertheless a two dimensionality to these issues, just as there is with Javed’s writerly pursuits and even the single scene with Eliza’s parents meant to provide her character depth. No, “Blinded by the Light” is best leaning into its knowing reality of heightened teenage fandom, like a scene where Javed watches Springsteen’s famous performance of “The River” at the No Nukes Festival, a so-painful-it’s-true evocation of how youthful obsession is at once self-conscious performance art and wholly earnest.

Springsteen songs, of course, are everywhere, and only fizzle when Chadha tries using them to paper over what the moment itself can’t produce, like the “Jungleland” needle drop. A “Thunderoad” sing-along, on the other hand, animates the fantasy of your favorite lyrics sweeping you along on a romantic quest you’re too timid to face on your own while the film’s high point finds Javed, Roops and Eliza running through the streets and across the fields of Luten, like The Beatles in “A Hard Day’s Night”, though running not from fans but where they’re from and who they are, living out the lyrics of “Born to Run” as they lose themselves in the joy of singing along to them too.

Granted, “Blinded by the Light” indulges a cult of personality, but it is simultaneously hip to this fact, evinced through Eliza, both enamored with Javed’s obsession even as she finds it ridiculous, deftly communicated by Williams in several loving you’re-an-idiot looks; she understands this as a teenage boy phase as rite of passion. And if he gets stuck in the phase, the movie makes the downturn, niftily crystallized in an older, more aching acoustic version of “The Promised Land”, brief. Javed spends most of “Blinded by the Light” communicating in Bruce’s words, but gradually begins substituting more of his own, brought home in his climactic speech to an auditorium of peers, slyly nodding at so many searching Springsteen monologues from the stage; in this moment, Javed finds his voice.

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