As a long time fan of Gurinder Chadha’s “Bend It Like Beckham”, I was really excited for her latest “Blinded By The Light”, especially because I love movies about teenagers and/or music. The premise: Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra) is a boy from Luton growing up in a strict Pakistani family during the politically turbulent 80’s. He discovers Bruce Springsteen through a friend at sixth form and begins to find his path in life.
Earnest, sincere, and sweet, I thoroughly enjoyed this film and was swept up in it’s charms. Some have called the film cringey; but isn’t that how it feels to be a teenager? The dream sequences, fantasy scenes, and magical realist semi-musical numbers that have turned off others won me over completely. “Blinded By The Light”, captures something of what it’s like to be a small town teen; that feeling when you discover who YOU are, through music, culture, and communities outside of your home. What teenager living on the “edge of town” didn’t walk the streets, headphones on, imagining their life as a cheesy film, or a super cool music video, to escape their reality?
Whilst I didn’t grow up on the outskirts of London during the Thatcher era, I grew up half-way between Manchester and Liverpool in the late 2000’s, and I could still relate to the feelings that the film evoked. Though it wasn’t Springsteen on my headphones, but NME-approved landfill indie, it didn’t matter. The film makes a point of this – this isn’t a film about loving Bruce Springsteen, it’s a film about loving the art that speaks to you and your experience. Javed’s sister Shazia has her “daytimers”, his best friend Matt has his synthpop; the film does not privilege any passion over another, but shows how art can mean different things to different people.
The film transforms the everyday experiences of small town life into that magical music video fantasy. Motorways, shopping centres, and housing estates become the backdrop for Javed’s headphones-on fantasies. For me, it was a power station, a soap factory, and a canal. All can be transformed into beautiful places with the right music turned on. The film gets off to a somewhat stilted start, but once Javed listens to his borrowed Bruce tapes for the first time, things get going.
Armed with his Walkman, Javed marches through his estate during the infamous Great Storm of 1987. Piles of leaves and discarded poems swirl around him in the wind, he presses play and Bruce’s words cut into his heart for the first time. Lyrics are projected onto the brick wall behind him as he becomes overwhelmed by the experience of hearing the music that will go on to change his life. Lightning crashes around him in the empty cul-de-sac like a religious experience, a miracle. The use of what appear to be real projections, rather than them being added in post-production, helped to visualise this sensation but also made it feel more tangible. It allowed the line to be blurred between Javed’s imagination and his reality. Later, when Javed and friends dance through the high street to Born To Run, my heart swelled as I shared in their newfound happiness and love. It’s theatrical (the film is definitely ripe to be adapted for the West End in the near future) but for me, it worked.
Following this initial scene, the film settles into its narrative, doing away with the awkward exposition and scene-setting. It becomes more comfortable in its own skin – just as Javed does. It deals with complex ideas, not just the cliches others have accused it of. In particular, Chadha treats Javed’s relationship with his parents with nuance. The difficult balancing act between prioritising yourself but also being part of a wider community is approached with care. Though initially Javed learns from Bruce that he needs to take charge of his own life and escape, especially from beneath the thumb of his father, he later realises that the message he can take from the music is less individualistic than that.
Javed’s father begins the film as the villain, but eventually, just as his own son does, the audience comes to understand why he behaves in particular ways. Javed sees his father’s struggles and realises that they are not dissimilar to his own, or even Springsteen’s. Javed grows from a timid teen to a self absorbed sixth former, and finally into a young man who is able to see and understand the inner lives of others around him. Reminding me of the experience of Greta Gerwig’s eponymous “Lady Bird”, it seems that learning to empathise is a pivotal point in any coming of age story or teenage experience. Enduring the troubles of being a teenager, it’s so easy to become angry at the world, angry at your parents, even angry at your friends; but once you break through that phase, it hits you that you need to stick together.
Whilst Javed still leaves Luton to study, he leaves with a better understanding of the other residents of his town; good and bad. Symbolically, when joining the motorway up north to Manchester, the sign that was once daubed with the graffiti “Luton Sucks” has been cleaned up. Javed no longer feels alone in his town because he has connected to those around him. His home has stopped holding such negative connotations; an experience shared by many small town teens as they pass into adulthood and appreciate the things they had.