Nostalgia is a big deal these days, and why wouldn’t it be?
When all you can see is the world burning around you, there is great comfort in going back to familiar stories and reliving how you felt in what seemed like a nicer and simpler time.
Our collective nostalgia is reflected almost every week at the multiplex- whether it be through a remake, reboot or sequel. I wonder if many of those films miss the point though. If you simply repeat what has been done before, what will the next generation have to hold onto?
Gurinder Chadha’s lovely coming of age film “Blinded by the Light” is nostalgia done right. The film, set in 1987, has all of the teen romance, mullets and ‘80s music you could want, and it feels of a piece with the sort of teen dramas that dominated the screen back in the ‘80s.
But you’re kidding yourself if you think this story of a Pakistani immigrant teenager facing racism, white nationalism and economic uncertainty could have made it to the screen in ’87, ’97 or even 2017. It feels timeless, but it is also very much a film of today.
It is also one of the most joyous films I’ve seen recently – not because it avoids the darkness of the past but because it embraces it. “Blinded by the Light” tells us that our life songs are made up of many verses – some beautiful, some painful. To deny any one of these verses makes the song, as a whole, a little less sweet.
The film is cowritten by British-Pakistani journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, who tells the semi-fictionalized story of his own teenage years in Luton, England. Our Manzoor stand-in is named Javed and played winningly by young actor Viveik Kalra.
Javed, like many teenagers, feels trapped in his life, but he has better reason than most: Growing up in a Pakistani family where every life decision is dictated by tradition, he sees little future for himself.
But, like many teenagers, Javed’s salvation comes in the form of music – particularly the music of one Bruce Springsteen.
Yes, the film makes comedic fodder of the fact that the Boss was never the hippest musician – even back in ’87. Javed’s best friend Matt (Dean Charles-Chapman) confuses Springsteen with Billy Joel. But Matt’s dad (Rob Brydon)? He knows every lyric to every song.
Still, it’s clear why Javed connects with Springsteen on such a deep emotional level. The Boss’s songs of working-class people trapped in their ordinary lives feel all too relevant to him.
Javed’s sudden love of Springsteen perplexes his parents – particularly his father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir, just perfect). And that’s not the only thing the father and son don’t see eye-to-eye on.
Obviously, the film concludes with a tearful understanding between father and son, but said understanding has more grace and nuance than I expected. Yes, Malik learns to appreciate his son’s passions and encourages him to be his own person. But Javed, who has long wanted to be a normal British teenager, sees how disingenuous that wish was. To deny his heritage is to deny a central part of who he is.
The theme of identity is sprinkled throughout “Blinded by the Light” from its jokes to its deeper messages. I’m not sure I’ve seen a film that better showcases the transformative power of art – how one song or film can completely change your worldview, especially as a teenager. But Springsteen isn’t the only one who shapes Javed’s identity.
An English teacher (Hayley Atwell) and an elderly neighbor encourage Javed’s writing abilities when no one else does. His friends and girlfriend accept him in a time of virulent racism in Great Britain. And his family, as dysfunctional as Javed thinks it is, provides the firm foundation he needs to get through the turbulence of daily life.
Javed is also strengthened by the adversity he encounters – the violent racism and the uncertainty of whether his family will be able to pay the bills each month. Javed learns something Springsteen has long known – that there is great transformative power in hardship.
I’ll be frank: I quite loved “Blinded by the Light.”. I thought it was a film of great power- funny, thought-provoking and utterly delightful.
I could – and will – nitpick since that is my job. Some of the side characters – particularly Javed’s mother and sisters- feel underdeveloped, although that may be a reflection of a culture in which women are rarely seen or heard. While I enjoyed the film, I imagine some could find it corny and predictable, and your thoughts on Springsteen will probably influence how much you enjoy the film’s musical interludes.
But If “Blinded by the Light” (rated PG-13 for thematic material and language including ethnic slurs) didn’t change my thoughts on Springsteen – I can still take him or leave him- it did encourage me to think about the many facets of my identity: the people, places and art that made me who I am. And, although the film is filled with nostalgia for the past, it also encourages us to look forward and find joy amid the pain of the present. There is something kind of fantastic about that, I think.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.