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Sundance 2019: Blinded by the Light

The anthems of Bruce Springsteen are the main inspiration behind “Blinded by the Light,” co-writer/director Gurinder Chadha’s coming-of-age story about a young man in 1987 Britain, whose life is changed once he starts listening to The Boss. But while Springsteen didn’t make a heavily-rumored appearance on Sunday night at the movie’s world premiere, the power of Springsteen’s music was unmistakably in the air, starting with Chadha leading the audience in an impromptu singalong of “Hungry Heart” before the film started. 

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The story is based on the life of Sarfraz Manzoor, who wrote about his deep fandom for Springsteen in the book Greetings from Bury Park, and co-wrote this script with Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges. "Blinded by the Light" reimagines him as a hopeful young man named Javed (Viveik Kalra), a true underdog: he wants to be a writer in spite of his conservative father's wishes, he's bullied by racists in his neighborhood for being first-generation Pakistani, and he has no friends. Even at his college, he doesn't believe his English teacher Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell) that he has a responsibility to make his “invisible, absent voice” heard. “Blinded by the Light” starts with emotional earnestness and sneaky big laughs when showing all that Javed has against him, and Kalra’s star-making performance gets you to root for him instantly. 

Everything changes when Javed’s badass Sikh classmate and instant friend Roops (Aaron Phagura, in a  reliable supporting turn that could have more screen-time) gives him two Bruce Springsteen tapes. In a dazzling sequence, Springsteen’s “The Promised Land” conjures a literal tempest in Javed's neighborhood. For a sweet lead performance that proves he’s a total pro for every joyous beat and movie-friendly convention, nothing tops Kalra's close-up as he hears Springsteen for the first time. It’s a religious experience, which is completely honest to the first time one hears a piece of music that will be with them forever. 

Beyond its admiration for Springsteen, “Blinded by the Light” keeps itself busy with as seemingly many conflicts as it can, an effort to obviously highlight the stakes within Javed’s hopes and deepest relationships. Yet while these passages offer more time with people (like Javed’s charismatic family members) and a peek into their lives as a first-generation Pakistani family at this time in history, it can create laborious drama that doesn’t pop as much as the music, however reliable the film is to make you laugh. And as Javed goes through a transformation with the help of Springsteen, one character is too close to getting lost in the shuffle—Nell Williams’ activist and punk Eliza, who plays a love interest for Javed and sometimes feels to be only that. 

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Practically bursting with its love for Springsteen, the movie builds past its formulaic story when it captures the euphoria of singing a song you love, without turning into a full musical. Its most exhilarating scenes are when its lead characters break out into song, like when Javed and Roops defy racist bullies by screaming the lyrics of “Badlands” in their face, and then strut away as everyone looks at the two giddy men like they're crazy. In these unabashedly sweet sequences, “Blinded by the Light” beautifully captures that feeling of how pressing play can lead to a deeply personal relationship between a listener and a songwriter. 

As for feeling that spiritual presence of The Boss—before going into Sundance, I didn’t understand the appeal of Springsteen as a lyricist, or the power within his music. But after hearing an auditorium full of people sing all words to the chorus of "Hungry Heart," and then seeing Javed, Roops, and Nell dash around singing his lyrics at the top of their lungs, I totally get it now. 

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