A coming-of-age drama with added Bruce Springsteen that never manages to make it past broad cliches, Blinded by the Light manages to stay consistently off-key.
Luton in 1987 is not where Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra) wants to be. He dreams of becoming a writer, of moving away from the small town where Thatcher’s Britain seems to hitting the hardest, and of escaping from his parents’ expectation. When he starts at Luton Sixth Form College, classmate Roops (Aaron Phagura) introduces him to the music of Bruce Springsteen – and Javed feels like he has found someone out there, finally, who understands him.
The outsider figure of Springsteen resonates with Javed, growing up in a world where the National Front are protesting on the streets, and racist graffiti adorned the walls and garages of his housing estate. At home too, he is out of place, as his desires clash with his Pakistani-Muslim immigrant parents’ own aspirations for him, seeing writing as a hobby not a career.
This is familiar territory for Chadha, whose 2003 film Bend It Like Beckham dealt with similar themes of identity and culture clashes, but unfortunately Blinded by the Light falls short of it’s acclaimed predecessor. The cast are talented, but they are never able to break out of constrictive stereotypes: the strict father, the secretly rebellious sister, the cool best friend. Any emotional pay-off in the final act feels hollow, as you attempt to empathise with characters that were never allowed to sit with you, to develop over the film’s runtime. This was most keenly felt as I discussed the film afterwards, completely unable to remember the name of Roops.
Blinded is also unable to decide if it wants to be a musical or a straight drama. Several music-esqe numbers are shoehorned in amongst the drama, Javed starts to sing a song to his girlfriend Eliza (Nell Williams) in a market, soon passers-by are dancing, singing and joining in – but without the conviction of a musical, these moments feel unbearably cheesy and unneccessary.
There are glimpse of a better film throughout, making it more frustrating that it never manages to get to that level. Javed goes to a daytimer with his sister Shazia (Nikita Mehta), a uniquely British-Asian event throughout the 1980s and 90s, where nightclubs opened their doors during the day time to Asian DJs and bhangra groups. Unable to go to ordinary nightclubs, thousands of teenagers would turn up in their school uniforms, change in the toilets and then be home for tea. This scene perfectly capture the discord between the society that second-generation desi teenagers grew up in, and their own cultures and traditions. Javed at first, is reluctant, putting on his headphones and dancing to Springsteen in his own world, before taking them off and dancing with the rest of the crowd.
What Chadha does well is captured in the quieter moments. The swell of politics is hard to ignore, as are the many parallels today with rising nationalism and white supermacy while we look to be facing with the aftermath of Brexit that will hit working-class communities the hardest. The film is drenched in period detail, Michael Foot is on the telly reassuring the public that the weather is going to be fine, big, bad hair and double denim is in.
It’s hard not to be moved by Blinded by the Light, an unapologetically earnest and hopeful piece of film-making, brought short by it’s own insecurities.