Look no further, the 2019 Sundance Film Festival has found its feel-good movie of the year.
“Blinded By the Light,” helmed by Gurinder Chadha (“Bend It Like Beckham”), burst on the Eccles Theatre screen in its world premiere on Sunday evening like a song lyric that is so perfectly crafted and inherently complemented by tune that it takes up residence in your mind for hours — or even days — at a time. Weaving a captivating coming-of-age story with an ample deployment of the Boss’ gritty lyrical and musical genius certainly had audience members mentally dancing in the darkness of the theater, even as the movie’s characters pranced joyfully through the halls of their school and into the streets of their downtrodden London suburb to the powerful strains of “Born to Run.”
Think “High School Musical,” but with much better music. Actually, don’t — “Blinded By the Light” is way deeper than that.
Based on an autobiographical book written by Springsteen superfan Sarfraz Manzoor, one of three credited with the screenplay, “Blinded By the Light” tells the story of a Pakistani-British teen, Javed (newcomer Viveik Kalra), whose dreams of being a writer conflict with the rigid old-school expectations of his father and increasing racism at the hands, mouths and other body parts of local fascists.
Javed’s world is rocked one day at school, when he randomly bumps into fellow Pakistani student Roops (Adam Phagura), who is listening to the Boss on his Walkman. Roops hands Javed a pair of cassette tapes and his whole existence is altered as he immerses himself in Springsteen lyrics, music, attitude and appearance, which in turn bolsters his confidence in dealing with the world as it unfolds around him. Smitten teen boys have been copping lyrics to communicate their feelings to beautiful girls since the dawn of time travel (think “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”), but rarely has it been so artfully engaging as it is in “Blinded By the Light,” which takes us back and firmly plants us in 1987 through the power of Bruce.
In the post-screening Q&A, Chadha said she and Manzoor initially pitched the idea to Springsteen from the red carpet in London, where he was on hand for the premiere of his film “The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town.” After getting the initial go-ahead, they started working on the screenplay.
“We knew that we didn’t have to please financiers or anybody for this — the only person we had to please was Bruce,” Chadha said. “So we sat down and wrote a screenplay for Bruce Springsteen, and we just used the songs as we wanted to use them. What I had to do is find ways in the songs, as if he’d written the songs for our movie.”
Somebody questioned Chadha on why there were only 16 actual seconds of the titular song “Blinded By the Light” in the movie itself. The director got a good chuckle over that one.
“I’m going to tell you something outrageous now,” she said. “Can you believe that there were people who said, ‘What about people watching this movie who are not Bruce fans? You’ve got to cater to them, too.’ Horrific! Isn’t that horrific? Sitting in a room and hearing someone say that? But the tragedy is, I feel it the same as you. But the film is one hour, 46, 47 minutes, but, boy, do I need an extra verse of ‘The River’ on TV. Boy, do I need an extra verse of every song — they’re all cut off too soon. And I’m just getting into singing them, and they’re gone.”
In the end, Chadha said in this case she thinks less is more.
“You will now go home and put it on and listen to all the songs,” she said. “And there’ll be a whole new audience that will come to Bruce Springsteen. A whole new generation. A bunch of Asians might not have ever gone to listen to Bruce. So really we’ve given a taste. If we had put as much of his music in as I would have liked, we’d still be here three hours later.”
Kalra, despite this being his first film, handled his starring role with aplomb. He did appear to be a bit in awe of the huge Eccles Theatre audience.
“There’s a lot of people here,” he said. “I’m very glad that you guys seemed to like it because I know I put my heart into it as much as I could. And that was really where it led for me. And it doesn’t matter, for me, about the accolades or what comes up after this, but just the fact that we all put our hearts and souls into it. … Just to think that we could be here now after all that is madness.”
Chadha told of attending a private screening with Springsteen and his management team. She said she sat in the row behind him, so she could better gauge his reaction to certain parts of the film. After it was over, she got up and turned the lights on.
“Everybody was waiting for his reaction before saying anything,” she said. “He kind of looked at me. He got up and walked over, and he gave me a big hug and kiss, and he said, ‘Thank you for looking out for me so beautifully.’ “
One got the first inkling that this film would be something special when Chadha led the audience in a singalong snippet of “Hungry Heart” during her comments before the screening.
Just how special? Well, in the post-screening Q&A, one woman in the audience felt compelled to share that she had worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign — and this was literally the first time she had laughed since Nov. 7, 2016.
“If more people could live by the words of Bruce Springsteen,” Manzoor responded from the stage, punchline at the ready, “that really would be a way to make America great again.”
Personal politics of audience members aside, “Blinded By the Light” is a glorious, inspiring movie — whether you are overly familiar with Springsteen’s music or not. If this film doesn’t strike an emotional chord, then tramps like you, baby, you were born to walk.