Film

In Blinded by the Light, director Gurinder Chadha critiques British politics and shows the tension between racial and national identity in a coming-of-age story that celebrates Bruce Springsteen’s music. By Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen.

Blinded by the Light

Viveik Kalra as Javed Khan and Nell Williams as Eliza in Blinded by the Light.
Credit: Nick Wall

“I’m caught in a crossfire that I don’t understand,” Bruce Springsteen sings on 1978’s “Badlands”, opening Darkness on the Edge of Town, an album that saw a major shift in his approach. Springsteen’s mythology – the blue-collar embodiment of the American dream – began here, as he documented the emotional struggles of the working class through song. He, too, was in a crossfire – on the edge of 30, breaking away from a musical safety that promised success to try something new and more daring, with no guarantee of pay-off. The song has gone on to be known as among his finest work.

Blinded by the Light, a new film from director Gurinder Chadha, transposes Springsteen’s message and ethos to late ’80s Britain, drawing upon the American legend’s back catalogue as a means to explore the coming of age of a British–Pakistani teen. Here, the crossfire is manifold – of family and self, new and old culture, ambition and obligation.

Based on journalist Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir, the film is, on the surface, a love letter to the transformative power of pop music. But really it is about the tension between racial and national identity – familiar territory for Chadha, who explored similar themes in 2002’s beloved Bend It Like Beckham and is a deft hand here once more.

In the working-class town of Luton, 16-year-old aspiring writer Javed Khan (played by newcomer Viveik Kalra with an utterly charming bewilderment) dreams of escape from his suburban ennui. His traditional father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), has lost his job at the Vauxhall Motors factory; his mother Noor (Meera Ganatra) works all day making clothes for rich people. Javed, meanwhile, writes ambitious poems with the encouragement of his English teacher.

It’s through a Sikh classmate that he first hears of Springsteen. “Bruce is the direct line to all that is true in this shitty world,” the friend proselytises, handing Javed cassette copies of Born in the USA and Darkness on the Edge of Town. Already these albums were well and truly passé in the film’s setting of 1987 – “your dad’s music,” as another classmate says.

When Javed hears “Dancing in the Dark” for the first time, he’s instantly hooked, recognising his own struggle in the lyrics. So begins an obsession with the Boss – the kind of hero worship felt most keenly in teenagerhood. Springsteen – the man and the myth – hovers over Javed’s narrative like an omnipotent benefactor, illuminating the roadmap to a fulfilled life. As ever, the music empowers Javed to find his voice, ask a girl out, stand up to his family – it’s a well-trodden trope that runs the risk of cliché, and often falls into it, but this is a film aware and embracing of its sincerity.

The film is the latest in a recent burst of music-based cinema, from biopics such as Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman to Danny Boyle’s flaccid blockbuster Yesterday. In Yesterday, the protagonist was also the son of South Asian migrants living in Britain, but that film made no effort to explore his identity or its complications. Instead it drew out a weak premise – a world where almost no one, save for a struggling musician, remembers the Beatles – for two excruciating hours.

The music-inspired film, although an easy vessel to spruik soundtracks, rarely manages to contribute to the cultural discourse in any meaningful or lasting way. Most focus on the impact of white male musicians on white male fans – the long shadow of High Fidelity and Almost Famous – creating a homogeneous picture of who benefits from the power of music. On this level, Blinded by the Light steps ahead, as a story where the music is integral, and as an atypical representation of a different kind of music fan.

And yet – “I wanted to make sure we didn’t make a jukebox musical,” Chadha told CNET in an interview, but the film is almost insufferably so. It sometimes feels as though you are watching one very long music video. Lyrics spin around Javed’s head like a poorly made fan YouTube clip. He speaks without irony in Springsteen lyrics and has his first kiss with anarchic pixie dream girl Eliza after reciting lines from “Prove It All Night” (one of the film’s great faults is its lack of three-dimensional female characters who exist for any reason other than to further Javed’s emotional journey). Bollywood-inspired song-and-dance scenes to “Thunder Road” and “Born to Run” add little emotional depth. Javed and his friend confront racist bullies in a diner by singing “Badlands”. The film is endearing and shamelessly earnest, but frequently saccharine to the point of toothache.

The social context is far more interesting though and, coupled with the music, makes for a more nuanced whole. There’s a Hughes-esque nostalgia to the film’s design – the typical high school cliques include “Wham! boys” and “Bananarama girls” – yet Chadha counters this with a realistic depiction of the political and economic unrest of the time, avoiding a total descent into naive, pastel-coloured sentimentality. Thatcher’s England and the rise of racial violence from the far-right National Front stands as a frightening mirror to Trump’s America and the contemporary alt-right.

Music is just one form of resistance, and watching how Blinded by the Light’s young characters respond to and revolt against the world around them is a stark reminder of the power of protest and solidarity. That the work of a white American can speak to a British–Pakistani teen highlights the universal nature of struggle and the blurring of cultural lines that can change and save lives. I was reminded of my teenage discovery of punk music as the child of Vietnamese refugee parents, and the intoxicating new world of possibility that opened to me.

Yet for hardworking migrant parents, all of this seems flippant: “You think this man sings for people like us?” Javed’s father asks. There’s a danger in stories such as these of presenting the Western way as “better” and Chadha is acutely aware of it, striking a delicate, sensitive balance in conjuring empathy for Javed, and presenting the hardships of his parents’ lives. In an exquisitely acted scene, Malik breaks down to his wife, saying he has failed the family. It is a crystallisation of the self-directed pressure and duality of the strict migrant parent. The Western world values “finding yourself”, yet for many migrants, losing their children to an adopted culture is a very real sorrow. The friction between father and son makes for some of Blinded by the Light’s most affecting moments, as Javed continues to stride towards himself, and the gulf between them widens.

At the film’s emotional climax, the teenager delivers a speech at a school awards ceremony that acts as an olive branch to his father: “I know having dreams doesn’t make me a bad son. I also know that everything I am is because of the sacrifices my mum and dad made,” he says. It’s terribly hackneyed writing, but it captures perfectly the existential crisis of the children of migrants – of the competing responsibilities towards family and self, and how those may meet in the middle, but for some never do. Chadha’s thoughtful treatment of these perspectives allows the truths of different worlds to be equally understood. She underlines, too, the dangers of wishful thinking, as Javed concludes the American dream is a falsehood.

Blinded by the Light is not a perfect film – its corniness may grate and its too-neat conclusion feels simplistic – but it is a story that joyfully celebrates both the healing power of music and the beautiful complication of family and identity. For so long, the canon of an idol such as Springsteen has been considered the domain of white men, but within his perpetually relevant lyrics are glimpses of diaspora struggle – of hungry hearts, waiting to be fed.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 2, 2019 as "The ties that bind". Subscribe here.

Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen
is a Vietnamese–Australian writer based in Melbourne.