It’s funny how so much of the conversation around film, especially around this time of year, centers around the Oscar race. That means if a film isn’t awards worthy then that somehow takes it out of the spotlight. How films are judged on their awards-worthiness depends on a set of mostly abstract criteria that has been, to paraphrase Mark Harris, dumbed down to suit a consensus. In other words, while it’s true that a lot of awards talk is advocacy (like this post) a lot of it is based on what we think “they” will do, and “they” are the Academy voters. Films are given a quick thumbs up or thumbs down based on that criteria but here’s the thing, it doesn’t necessarily tell you what the really good movies are.
Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light never seemed to get any traction anywhere, which is odd considering the director is female (who directed Bend it Like Beckham) – you’d think that would have automatically meant there was some attention paid to it. While it does have its fans, for whatever reason it never really caught on. It opened “soft” and made just 11 million here in the US and 17 million worldwide. That is another way we judge movies in real time, how much money they made. We then write it off if it doesn’t somehow feel like a winner.
But I can tell you this much – of all of the films released this year only a handful of them will find their permanent place in the collective as treasured movies to be rewatched over time and I can promise you Blinded by the Light is one of those movies. It works as a film because it is fueled by the truth. And by pure joy. Even while the main character’s family is being targeted for hate crimes, as so many in his town protest against immigration, through it all there is Springsteen.
The lead actor, Viveik Kalra, is clearly one of the main reasons the film works as well as it does. It is a simple yet universal story of how Bruce Springsteen’s songs and persona gave one Pakistani boy in England a reason to believe. It might not have resonated as a story were it about the many American kids who were rescued by Springsteen’s songs and there are many. I was one of them. That his music reached one young man at a time when no one in his town even cared about Springsteen songs doesn’t just say a lot about Springsteen’s music, but about the power of music in general.
The film really should be universal in that way because Springsteen’s music and songwriting is universal but perhaps it was just TOO specific, like Todd Haynes’ brilliant I’m Not There, which for Dylan fans was one of the best cinematic experiences in their lifetimes — it certainly was mine. Anyone who has ever been touched by Springsteen’s music because they attended one of his concerts or they simply connected to his songwriting will be greatly moved by Blinded by the Light.
I remember listening to Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town in my bedroom as a teenager in Ojai, California, and how much those songs seemed to be speaking specifically to me. I played them over and over again. Yes, Springsteen WAS the 1980s to many of us but he evolved as we evolved and I’ve stuck with him and his songs and have found resonance in them throughout my life. Meanwhile, all the way over on the side of the world they were speaking to the main character in Blinded by the Light, as Bruce helps him become cooler, to get a girlfriend and have confidence in himself to write.
The film captures the energy, enthusiasm and pure beauty of Springsteen’s most famous songs, of course, because how do you do a movie like this and not have Born to Run as one of the high points? But it doesn’t just do the hits – it definitely is a film by people who know Springsteen’s long history of laying down tracks.
It’s true that Bruce fans are practically a religion, and if we aren’t a religion, we’re certainly a tribe. We know what it is like to watch Bruce and the E. Street band perform live, or just Bruce performing acoustic. If Springsteen is someone who comes off a bit removed in interviews (that’s true) he certainly doesn’t on stage. No one performs concerts quite like he does, where every single person watching feels like he’s singing specifically to them. This film captures what it feels like to be twice bitten by the man called the Boss.
This is a film that The Hollywood Foreign Press should nominate for Best Musical/Comedy – but I’m not holding my breath on that one. If you love Bruce, or if you want to see a well acted, uplifting, soul cleansing film with a strong central performance check out Blinded by the Light and remember:
For the ones who had a notion, a notion deep inside
That it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive