Movie Review: ‘Blinded by the Light’ shows universal power of The Boss

August 19, 2019

June 6, 2023 | (Jason Fraley)

It’s a sign of the culture that multiple great movies have rolled out over the past year to honor classic rock musicians, as “Bohemian Rhapsody” chronicled Queen, “Rocketman” saluted Elton John and “Yesterday” hailed The Beatles.

Now, it’s The Boss’ turn as “Blinded by the Light” celebrates the masterful music of Bruce Springsteen, one of the most prolific poets of our time. That’s right, poet.

The film premiered at Sundance, inspired by the true story of British-Pakistani journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, who wrote glowing tributes to Springsteen, including his unique memoir “Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Roll.”

Set in Luton, England in 1987, the story follows a British-Pakistani teenager named Javed (Viveik Kalra), whose life is changed when his friend Roops (Aaron Phagura) introduces him to a cassette tape of Springsteen. His Muslim family and friends can’t understand what he has in common with the singer of “Born in the U.S.A.,” but he insists there’s universal inspiration in Bruce’s blue-collar lyrics.

Many film reviewers have drawn parallels between lead actor Viveik Kalra and “Yesterday” star Himesh Patel, seeing as they’re both charming British actors of Indian descent starring in a pair of music biopics, but that’s where the similarities stop. In fact, these are two very different movies, both great in their own right.

First, Javed is not a struggling musician but rather an aspiring journalist. Yes, he contributes occasional lyrics to his rocker buddy Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman), but he primarily wants to write for the school paper, intern at The Herald and study at Manchester University. His biggest advocate is his teacher Ms. Clay, played by Hayley Atwell, who was Chris Evans’ soulmate in the “Avengers” saga.

Second, Javed does not enter a fantasy genre like “Yesterday,” where The Beatles suddenly don’t exist. Rather, he exists in a painfully real world where Springsteen is his only ray of sunshine amid neo-Nazi marches, anti-Muslim graffiti, schoolyard bullying, Russians invading Afghanistan and his own family’s economic plight during the austere Thatcher Administration (cue “Jungleland”).

Third, his character arc isn’t solely about romantic love, though he does have an adorable chemistry with student activist Eliza (Nell Williams), whose parents disapprove of her dating a Muslim. It’s more about his relationship with his family, arguing with his strict father Malik (Kuvinder Ghir) and subservient mother Noor (Meera Ganatra), then tearing up as the family reaches a deeper understanding.

This family dynamic fuels the piece, a common theme for director Gurinder Chadha, who was born in British-ruled Kenya as part of the Indian diaspora before growing up to make films about Indians living in England. Her most famous example was the beloved sports flick “Bend it Like Beckham” (2002) about a young Indian girl striving to play soccer like British star David Beckham.

Co-writing with Manzoor and Paul Mayeda Berges, Chadha’s greatest strength is to show distinct cultural differences but with mutual respect. On the one hand, she champions the American dream as a TSA agent smiles, “I can’t think of a better reason to visit the United States than to see the birthplace of The Boss.” Then, as Javed plays tourist in Bruce’s hometown in New Jersey, the soundtrack suggests that he’s “blinded” by his hero’s roots without appreciating his own.

Visually, Chadha superimposes the lyrics on screen during “Dancing in the Dark,” “The Promised Land,” “Badlands” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” This not only clarifies Bruce’s quasi-mumbling style, but also celebrates his cinematic songwriting: “Screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves, like a vision she dances across the porch as a radio plays.”

Rather than full-on musical numbers where background characters suddenly burst into fantastical song, the film lets the main characters sing with headphones on as bystanders give them a believably curious look before organically joining.

It’s hard to pick a favorite number because there are so many to choose from.

“Thunder Road” unfolds in the market where Javed is hilariously joined in song by Matt’s father (Rob Brydon, who starred across Steve Coogan in the buddy comedy franchise “The Trip”). It’s a cross-generational duet of a new Bruce fan and a longtime fan who caught “The River” tour at Wembley Stadium in 1981.

“Prove It All Night” provides an intimate singalong during Javed’s first kiss with Eliza, as the lyrics inspire Javed to turn around and take a chance on love. It’s dynamite to see Bruce’s sexiest song immortalized forever on the silver screen.

Best of all is “Born to Run,” which Javed and Roops blast over the high school P.A. system after locking the radio station doors like Andy Dufresne. They draw smiles from their classmates as they sing down the hallways before running across a bridge as Roops shouts, “Strap your hands across my engines!”

For all of these numbers, it certainly helps if you’re already a Springsteen fan, but fandom is not a prerequisite. In fact, the film is tailor-made to convert the non-Springsteen fans, who recognize the bigger hits like “Hungry Heart” but wonder why the film is named after a Manfred Mann tune (Mann covered Springsteen’s 1973 original).

“How can you listen to the stars-and-stripes patriotism of ‘Born in the U.S.A.?'” one Brit asks Javed, thinking he’s got the trump card on The Boss. “It’s actually about the plight of veterans coming home from Vietnam,” he replies.

If you’re a casual fan, this movie is as much for you as it is for us diehards.

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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