BLINDED BY THE LIGHT
review by James McCleary
As 2019’s third jukebox musical about a young man from a working class English background who discovers his inner voice through the power of song, Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light goes to great lengths to distinguish itself from its competition, abandoning almost all traces of the romance and flamboyance typical of the musical genre in favour of something quieter and more intimate. Despite its bold and unconventional central conceit of juxtaposing the vibrant, empowering works of Bruce Springsteen with the brutalism of Thatcherite Britain, the film largely refrains from stylised visuals and escapist thrills, instead using its unique premise to construct the stage for a deeply personal drama. The result is a film loaded with poignant characters and ambitious themes which are largely tarnished by their efforts to fit into two clashing genres simultaneously.
The film, which is inspired by a true story, depicts the relationship between a father and son from a Pakistani family struggling to stay afloat amongst a series of devastating social and financial setbacks. The son, Javed (Viveik Kalra), is our protagonist, a gifted writer who hopes to one day become a political journalist and leave his home behind, but lacks the confidence to pursue those intentions as it would require him to defy the wishes of his traditionalist father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), a man with no tolerance for interests or hobbies which do not immediately contribute to the family’s diminishing income. It is only once Javed discovers the music of Bruce Springsteen that he develops the courage to stand up for himself, though as he gets closer to realising his dreams, he begins to question who and what he is willing to leave behind in the process.
Javed’s transformation is a story ripe with potential, but unfortunately Blinded by the Light’s tonal confusion does it little justice. The detrimental impact of the film’s genre balancing act is particularly apparent in the film’s strange implementation of Springsteen’s music. Only a small handful of the film’s licensed songs are utilised in a musical context, with the majority appearing only in the form of quotes used by Javed as a method of self-expression. The film’s reluctance to fully commit to either format becomes even more frustrating after it demonstrates just how effective its few musical set pieces actually are, with a John Hughes-inspired adventure through the streets of Luton set to “Born to Run” being a particular highlight.
This decision also has the unfortunate consequence of drawing attention to the weaknesses of the film’s lead performer. It becomes apparent early on that Kalra is far better suited to the bombastic theatrics of Rocketman than the nuanced emotions required of him in the film’s subtler moments, for while the young actor excels when required to deliver an enraged outburst or a tear-jerking monologue, he struggles with the various stages of Javed’s slow transformation from introvert to activist which are implied in the film’s dialogue but never realised in his performance. His recitations of Springsteen’s lyrics are particularly stilted, more closely resembling karaoke than poetry despite the screenplay’s insistence that the reverse is true.
Fortunately the film’s sizeable supporting cast, most of whom receive a considerable amount of strong material to work with, are all fully engaged and more than capable of pinpointing the nuances of their characters, resulting in a huge number of memorable performances, including Javed’s ageing rockstar manager (Rob Brydon) and his sly younger sister Shazia (Nikita Mehta). The film’s greatest asset is unquestionably Kulvinder Ghir as Javed’s father Malik, however. The script requires Ghir to navigate a wide range of emotions, from anger to pride to shame, often within the space of a single scene and all while still clinging to the character’s fundamental inflexibility. While Valra fails to balance the explicit theatrics of the musical with the implicit struggles of Javed’s domestic life, Ghir’s ability to find the perfect blend of both in every line results in one of the most complex and finely tuned performances of the year thus far.
Blinded by the Light deserves to be commended for its efforts in combining the base elements of two opposing genres, the outlandish musical and the gritty domestic drama, and for generating some of the most memorable screen performances in recent memory, but it does ultimately collapse under the weight of its flawed ambition. One cannot help but speculate as to the heights the film may have reached had it committed to just one of its core genres.
Blinded By The Light will open in Irish cinemas on August 9th.