What’s not clear about Blinded by the Light is how much of the film’s success is because of lead Viveik Kalra or because about ninety straight minutes of soundtrack consists of The Best of Bruce Springsteen. The film, based on an actual British Pakistani Springsteen stan, is about teenager Kalra discovering Springsteen at just the right time in his life—it’s 1987, Thatcher’s England has no jobs and overt skinheads (it’s also funny how this film, set in the 80s and in the UK, feels very 2019 for the US), Kalra’s got a controlling dad (Kulvinder Ghir, in the film’s most troubled part), he’s starting at a new school, his best friend (Dean-Charles Chapman) has got a Pet Shop Boys knock-off band and accompanying style. Kalra’s feeling caged and, after a chance encounter with the only other East Asian guy at his new high school—Aaron Phagura, who’s appealing enough but literally has no personality beyond a smile. Phagura loans Kalra a couple Springsteen tapes; it takes him a few days and a few significantly severe new problems in his life to listen.
Once he does, Light becomes an attempt at visualizing how a person connects with a song. It’s obvious stuff—emphasized lyric excerpts on the screen with some Adobe animation on the text itself—but director Chadha goes all in on it. Get over whether to not it’s creative enough and focus on whether or not it’s functional enough. Because the film tries to avoid ever actually talking about politics. It shows the politics. It shows Ghir gets attacked by Neo-Nazis; they’re matching and blocking the way to Kalra’s cousin’s wedding. But it doesn’t get close to the characters as they experience it. There’s a detached narrative distance, which gets stylized to some degree with the music, but the film never explicitly ties the events surrounding Kalra to the accompanying Springsteen songs. It seems like there’s an intentional clue from Chadha on how to watch the film at one point—Kalra is in an East Asian dance club and puts on Springsteen and watches how the sixteen year-old working class Pakistani girls really are just the sixteen year-old working class American girls in the song. And so on. It’s a great moment, though Chadha doesn’t know how to amplify it. Though Light’s even keel, tone-wise, is one of its most consistent successes. Other than Kalra. And the accompanying Springsteen songs doing their job because they’re Springsteen songs.
The film’s got a lot of inconsistent successes. Something works here for a while, stops working for a while, starts working again. Or something working goes away then comes back, still working. The plot is better than the script, which is most exemplified with dad Ghir. Ghir’s got the film’s biggest personal journey—Kalra’s Bruce Springsteen obsession is indicative of far more serious problems—and Light is way too comfortable letting Ghir be a caricature. When it’s time for Ghir to get a moment to act and not react to someone else, the film cuts away. By the time Ghir starts putting his foot down about Kalra’s very un-Pakistani attitudes, it’s too late for the scene to carry much weight. The film actively encourages everyone involved to give up on Ghir because even as he’s a Springsteen song character too… the way the film grafts it with the working class Pakistani father in the eighties story doesn’t give Ghir much agency. It’s a really effective performance from Ghir, but it’s not a good part.
To be fair, there aren’t a lot of good supporting parts. There are lots of good supporting performances, but the parts are all rushed; if you’re a supporting cast member, you don’t get a complete story arc. You’re lucky if you get even a brief subplot—like Kalra’s sister, Nikita Mehta, clubbing and having a boyfriend—or Kalra’s eventual love interest, Nell Williams, and her struggle against her conservative parents. Williams is a great eighties movie character—the costuming in Light are fantastic, ditto the production design. By Annie Hardings and Nick Ellis, respectively. Director Chadha is definitely able to realize a comprehensive vision here, it’s just a very safe one. The film doesn’t go hard on the musical stuff; there are some musical numbers, which are good, but they go away pretty soon in the second half, replaced by montages, which are different. It also doesn’t go hard on the political stuff. Outside the fight with the Neo-Nazis, Kalra and Ghir are always keeping a stiff upper lip and turning the other cheek as far as the racism goes. And Light never gets into the characters’ heads for their reactions to it.
So the good supporting performances—Mehta, Chapman, mom Meera Ganatra (who gets the film’s worst part, but kind of because it should be from her perspective instead), Williams; Phagura’s fine. He’s got nothing to do but he’s likable. The only iffy performance is Tara Divina as Kalra’s cousin who comes to live with them recently before the movie it seems like… maybe? There’s something murky in the ground situation but she’s a brat and Divina’s too thin about it. Great cameos from Rob Brydon, Hayley Atwell, David Hayman.
Blinded by the Light hits its target but isn’t aiming high enough; it’s just too middle of the road, leveraging Kalra and Springsteen instead of informing them.
Directed by Gurinder Chadha; screenplay by Sarfraz Manzoor, Chadha, and Paul Mayeda Berges, based on a book by Sarfraz Manzoor and inspired by music by Bruce Springsteen; director of photography, Ben Smithard; edited by Justin Krish; music by A.R. Rahman; production designer, Nick Ellis; produced by Jane Barclay, Chadha, and Jamal Daniel; released by Entertainment One.
Starring Viveik Kalra (Javed), Kulvinder Ghir (Malik), Dean-Charles Chapman (Matt), Nell Williams (Eliza), Meera Ganatra (Noor), Aaron Phagura (Roops), Nikita Mehta (Shazia), Tara Divina (Yasmeen), David Hayman (Mr. Evans), Hayley Atwell (Ms. Clay), and Rob Brydon (Matt’s father).