Love, faith, Springsteen; that and a Sony Walkman are all it takes to surrender to the pure, ingenuous joy of Blinded by the Light, a Technicolor ode the power of music so deeply tender and heartfelt that it disarms even the most misanthropic critic’s instincts.
It’s been nearly 20 years since director Gurinder Chadha broke out with Bend It Like Beckham, a crowd-pleasing achievement she’s never quite replicated since. But then, she didn’t have the Boss.
Based on a memoir by BBC and Guardian journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, Light tells the story of Javed (Viviek Kalra), an Anglo-Pakistani teenager living in the grim London satellite town of Luton (“a four letter word”) in Thatcher-era ‘80s England.
He dreams of becoming a writer one day, but for now settles for writing song lyrics for his best friend, Matt (Dean-Charles Chaplin), a brashly confident kid with a Flock of Seagulls haircut and at least third-base sexual experience.
Javed’s own immigrant parents, particularly his hard-driving father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), don’t have time for Javed’s dreams; they need him to help earn money to support the family and embody the kind of obedient immigrant sacrifice he so desperately wants to break out of.
Javed does have a teacher (Hayley Atwell) who believes in his writing talent, and a new acquaintance, Roops (Aaron Phagura) who literally rocks his world by handing him his first cassette tapes of the man he’ll come to know not just as Bruce, but as his own personal Boss and savior.
This is no remote American rock star, singing shiny paeans to fast girls and pretty cars; this is a poet laureate of the marginalized and misunderstood, a true artist who understands every thwarted hope in Javed’s heart.
As Chadha unfurls the more standard aspects of her coming-of-age story, with all its obligatory teen romance and spontaneous singalongs (interludes she pulls off with an impressively organic sense of unreality), she also places it against the very real backdrop of Thatcherite Britain: the rise of the neo-Nazi National Front, the disastrous economic downturn, the casual insults and assumptions a brown-skinned kid has to endure and sublimate every day if he wants to survive.
Kalra embodies all that with so much grace and natural charisma that it’s hard to believe it’s his big screen debut; even when the script makes too-easy choices or steers into sheer wish-fulfillment silliness, he and the rest of the cast sell it with such sweet conviction and purity of heart, it’s hard not to want to dance in the dark — and follow them all into the light. B+