Blinded By the Light (review)

This film might have been called, Blinded by the Boss, because Javed took Bruce Springsteen’s music so literally that he failed to really understand it.  Blinded By the Light is a very good film and its messages have wide-ranging appeal.  The fact that it is based on a real story makes this film even sweeter.

You don’t have to be a big Springsteen fan to enjoy the film. His music is featured purposely throughout the film, but the story could be about the Beatles or Elton John or Dianna Ross in how the character has such an emotional attachment to the music.

When people hear, “this is a coming of age story,” eyes immediately begin to roll.  How many of those films have we already seen?  This film is a bit different, in part because of the character’s background and the events going on around him during the film’s time-frame.

Warning: If you want to see the film and haven’t, stop reading here.  I do not want to ruin it for you.  If you haven’t seen the film and are undecided, read a bit farther, but at your own risk.  I warn you, you’ll get drawn in, and then you’ll know the ending.  Just see the film and save yourself the disappointment and angry comment back to me.

The story, set in 1987, is about Javed Khan, a British-Pakistani teenager in Luton, England.  He doesn’t seem to have many friends, is shy, dominated by his dad, is unable to approach a girl he likes, and suffers from racism toward foreigners. Javed loves music and he is a writer.  He has been compiling a diary for years and writing poetry, but he hasn’t shown anyone.  The most he has done is tried to write song lyrics for his one friend, Matt.

In 1987, Springsteen is not relevant for teenagers.  This is the age of Wham, Bananarama, Cutting Crew and Madonna.  Javed has to sell people on why he things Springsteen matters, because as his classmates say, “It’s the kind of music your dad listens to.”

Javed’s life changes when he literally bumps into the only other Asian student, Roops, spilling his Bruce Springsteen cassettes on the floor.  Later, Roops gives him the cassettes and tells him to just listen to the Boss.  This is the age of the Walkman and everyone has one on their belt.  Javed immediately connects to Springsteen’s energy and his lyrics, the songs speak of Javed’s life and dreams.

In 1987, there is rising unemployment in England, including Javed’s dad who is laid off from his automotive factory job after 16 years.  Javed tries to get a part-time job to help out, as his family all work to bring money to the household.  His dad is very traditional and proud, he dismisses his son’s interest in music, girls, writing and anything non-Paki. “Stay away from girls, and follow the Jew,” his father says, thinking Springsteen is an American Jew.  No one is allowed opinions in his household except this dad.  [Javed’s dad has this view that all Jews are smart and rich.]  He prohibits Javed from going to Matt’s party.  He tells Javed he will never be British. Javed just wants to go to college in Manchester, which is very away from there.

Because the lyrics seem to mirror his life, the words are often displayed on the screen.

Listening to Springsteen’s songs gives Javed the help to gradually come out of his shell and it begins to change his life. The lyrics speak to him, he identifies with Springsteen’s frustration and passion, especially to escape the chains of his youth.  He sees the words in the air, which the director does, that help the viewer to see what Javed internalizes from the songs; he also sings the songs out loud as he gains confidence.  He seeks a position to write for the school newspaper, but it turned down, and he asks to host a radio show about the Boss.  Again, his classmates see no relevance in Springsteen.

Javed is enrolled in a writing class, even though his father thinks he’s studying economics.  Miss Clay, his instructor challenges Javed, she feels like he isn’t really using his voice, he’s not being authentic to his talent.  A subplot involves Javed’s next door neighbor, an older Englishman who they do not seem to know, but who takes notice in Javed, who finds one of his poems after Javed throws them away in a moment anger, after realizing he will have to stop studying to help out his family.  The man brings the poem to Javed’s house and tells him to keep writing, the first encouragement he has gotten.  Javed gets a break and he is allowed to write an article for the school paper.

Throughout the film, there are repeated episodes of racism toward Pakistanis, and they take it without a fight.  Javed and Roops fight back against some punks who harass them in a restaurant by singing lyrics from the Boss and walking proudly out of the restaurant.  The other source of tension in the film that his dad’s being out of work is putting more pressure on the family to make money, and Javed fears dropping out of school to help support his family.  Javed gets a part-time job at the flea market of Matt’s dad.

Javed completely emerges himself in Springsteen, wearing his hair and dressing like him, with posters all over his room.  Listening to the Boss, he finally works up the courage to purse Eliza, a fellow student.  She encourages his writing and being himself.

Meanwhile, while Javed is having his Boss moment, he has a falling out with Matt, his friend from childhood. He tries to apologize to Matt, but it doesn’t work.  Matt is the first to confronts Javed with how he’s been behaving, shutting people out behind is world of Springsteen. Even his next door neighbor says that friends deserve to be listened to, so he tries to apologize again, and this time it works.

Springsteen is coming to London and Javed must get tickets.  He saves money from his job, without telling his dad.  The day he buys the tickets is his sister’s wedding and while Javed is gone, his dad is assaulted by anti-Paki protesters.  It is the also the same day as Javed has an article published in the newspaper about saving their mosque. He dad is angry about spending money on the tickets and his writing, and tears up the concert tickets.  Equally angry, Javed says he doesn’t want to be his son, he wants to be more than that, as his riff with his dad widens.

Eliza also criticizes Javed for not being with his family when they needed him.  She tells him not to use his family an an excuse for everything.  Angrily, he breaks up with her.  Those around Javed are seeing how he has become wrapped around his own frustration at the expense the people around him.

Miss Clay enters Javed’s writing into a contest, without his knowledge, and he wins.  The prize is a trip to Monmouth College in New Jersey, the Boss’ backyard.  He wants to go but his dad refuses, so Javed leaves home.  Roops and Javed go on the trip and visit all of Springsteen’s boyhood places, it is a homage to the Boss.

Javed is no longer living at home, and his mother implores his dad to fix the divide. She will not forgive him if they lose their son. Finally, that registers with him.  His dad starts to read Javed’s poems and listens to his music.

At a school awards event, Javed is asked to read his winning essay.  As he begins reading, his parents show up to hear it.  Javed stops reading his essay and instead speaks from his heart.  What he has recently come to realize, with the help of Springsteen’s “Blinded By the Light”, is how he has become blinded, how he forgot the people around him, to those he is connected.  It is his recognition of how much his parents sacrificed to help make him the person he is.

Javed had failed to see that Springsteen’s works also apply to his dad, how he had the same dreams as a young man, but they never came true for him. His dad’s pain comes out as anger and frustration; he feels like a failure.  At least he finally has something in common with his dad.

The real Javed, Sarfraz Manzoor, and Bruce Springsteen.

Springsteen’s songs serve as the backdrop to the film, and are edited to match key elements of the story, the lyrics almost being acted out on the screen.

Blinded By the Light is based on Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Roll  by Sarfraz Manzoor, who is the Javed character in the film.

Directed and co-written by Gurinder Chadha, this film has much packed into it’s nearly two hours.  There are multiple story-lines, humor, pathos and many intersecting stories.  The way the songs are integrated into the character’s life and his events is uncanny. You might think Springsteen wrote this songs specifically for the film.  It shows the universality of Springsteen’s music and how many of us struggled to come to grips with our lot in life, and taking our own steps forward.

I was unfamiliar with all of the actors, but impressed by how well they became these characters.  Viveik Kalra plays Javed, a young man with so many powerful, conflicting emotions.  Kulvinder Ghir plays Javed’s dad, a proud and domineering man who is also blinded by his own efforts to have some control over his life, but in doing so, is losing his family.


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