The British 1980s gets its most faithful and fun cinematic treatment so far in Gurinder Chadha’s infectious musical memoir, Blinded by the Light.
Set in Luton in 1987, it’s mainly based around the music of Bruce Springsteen, but there are plenty of other tunes in there too (Pet Shop Boys, A-ha), along with big hairstyles, unemployment and racism. It’s an extremely warm film, often very funny and captures a time, place, a moment and a culture just about perfectly.
Based on a book by Sarfraz Manzoor, Chadha tells the story of Javed, a British Pakistani Muslim teenager who discovers the music of Springsteen’s Born in the USA album and finds kinship in the power of the working-class, New Jersey lyrics. These words start dancing across the screen, projected onto bedroom walls, suburban garage doors and cul-de-sac houses.
The poetry and heart of the music inspires young, nervous Javed to feats of romantic bravery and literary daring, impressing his English teacher at sixth-form college (a sweet performance from Hayley Atwell) and slowly gaining the admiration of Eliza, the prettiest, coolest, whitest girl in school (Nell Williams – exactly the girl I would have fancied like mad, too).
Bend It Like Beckham remains Chadha’s most cherished work and it became a West End musical later in its life, but Blinded by the Light has more polish and poise and could well take that crown. Again, its uniqueness comes in the portrayal of a Pakistani family in the heart of Britain, drawing drama and humour out of the immigrant situation and all the tussles and tugs of that balance between assimilation and tradition. I love those little domestic details, beautifully picked out by Chada’s eye, from the family portraits, the pop posters on the wall, the cars, and outfits, and those long, plastic runner mats people had in their hallways – I’d always wondered if they really kept muddy footprints off the carpet but here. one becomes dramatically repurposed during an act of casual, everyday racism that comes through the letterbox.
It’s a story that could only be told by the people – Manzoor, Chadha – who saw life from their own perspective growing up here and it’s a story that is so seldom told on our screens (apart from Chadha’s own work, I can think of East is East, and the BBC 2 drama The Boy with the Topknot) that it comes as a welcome blast of cultural freshness, re-invigorating a genre and a period that risks succumbing to screen cliche.
Some tunes are delivered by The Boss himself, heard over the radio or on cassette tapes, while others are sung by the cast in various situations – you don’t have to like Bruce Springsteen to come out humming these tunes (Willy Russell’s key indicator to any musical’s success) and I was certainly carried along for days afterwards on a tide of Dancing in the Dark, Hungry Heart and Born to Run (only cheeky Chadha could get away with staging a raucous street-scene dance number that actually features a tramp running, in illustration of “tramps like us, baby we were born to run”).
The performance of newcomer Viveik Kalra as Javed is a boon, a likeable turn deftly handling teenage rebellion and first love, while maintaining the veneer of respectful family boy who nevertheless dreams of getting the hell out of Luton, much against the wishes of his father.
At times, it was like watching one of those John Hughes 80s movies, a Pretty in Pink or a Breakfast Club, at last transposed to the Bedfordshire backwaters. There’s a lot of this “jukebox” stuff about these days – from Mamma Mia, to Rocket Man and Yesterday – but Blinded by the Light bottles all the best aspects of those, and shakes them into something special, a modern masala musical about growing up, about the power of music and – even more powerful – about family. I can’t remember the last time I had such fun at the movies. Blinding, indeed.