This cinematic summer is topped and tailed by a pair of films inspired by two of the biggest names in modern music – The Beatles and Bruce Springsteen. Richard Curtis’s Fab Four comedy/fantasy, Yesterday, was released at the end of June and this week sees the arrival of Gurinder Chadha’s musical drama, Blinded By The Light – two British films with a central character of Asian heritage and some wonderfully familiar songs. At which point the similarities end.
Based on the memoirs of journalist Sarfraz Manzoor about his teenage years in Luton during the late 80s, we see him as Javed (Viveik Kalra making a great debut) gazing wistfully at the M1 motorway snaking away from the town. He longs to escape. At sixth form college, his love of writing comes to the fore but what really inspires him is the music of Springsteen. Songs that speak to him personally, that make him feel understood and which breathe fire into his dream of being a writer and getting away from the culture he feels is suffocating him. His family are the only Asians on their small estate and they’re targets for racists, and all of this takes place against a background of rocketing unemployment, the miners’ strike, an NHS crying out for investment and a Prime Minister looking down on everybody from posters advocating a united Britain.
It represents a departure in tone for Chadha after the soft-centred Viceroy’s House (2017), a well-intentioned and sincere project hamstrung by its Upstairs Downstairs structure. This is a very different proposition, one with real authenticity, from its re-creation of branches of Athena, HMV and W H Smith and the heights of technology of the day – cassette tapes and Walkmen – and a gritty refusal to fight shy of depicting the issues of the time. A racist demonstration wrecks an Asian wedding, Javed’s father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), desperately tries to keep up appearances after losing his job, while all the time suffering the agony of humiliation just below the surface. It’s a time of turbulence and upheaval, for the nation and for Javed and his family.
That sense of period and uncompromising honesty is one of the film’s great strengths. The other is Springsteen’s music and, while the mix with the drama isn’t always wholly successful, there’s absolutely no denying the energy – often of the raw variety – that goes into the musical numbers. It’s completely infectious: if you already know the songs, you’re mouthing the lyrics while you watch, just a hair’s breadth from singing along out loud. It’s a wonderful experience, it makes your heart sing and you’ll want to listen to Springsteen for ever more.
The principle members of the cast all give strong performances and the film also boasts some delicious little comedy cameos. Rob Bryden as a market trader with a terrible mullet who loves The Boss. Marcus Brigstocke as a Basil Fawlty lookalike dad to Javed’s girlfriend, complete with all of Torquay’s Finest’s tact and diplomacy. And Sally Phillips as the head of the sixth form college, brandishing a 1980s mobile phone that weighs a tonne and, as she points out to somebody daft enough to call her on it, costs a fortune as well.
In truth, it’s also overlong and could do with some trimming but the baggy moments coincide with the audience still being on a high from the previous musical number and it soon redeems itself, either with another song, a piece of fantasy or something more down to earth. Blinded By The Light, as has already been widely observed, is a feel-good movie, perhaps the best of its type of the year so far. But it’s more than that: a portrait of a family in a divided country where some of its less positive characteristics have come to the fore. Sound familiar?
Read our interview with Blinded By The Light director, Gurinder Chadha, here.
Freda Cooper | [rating=4]
Biography, Drama, Musical | Cert:12A| UK, 9 August (2019) | Entertainment One | Dir. Gurinder Chada | Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Meera Ganatra, Nell Willliams, Rob Bryden, Hayley Atwell, Aaron Phagura.