A broadly sincere coming-of-age story about music’s ability to improve lives, “Blinded by the Light” is simultaneously the corniest and most inspiring movie of the year so far. It doesn’t hurt that the story’s focus on Bruce Springsteen means the soundtrack is laden with The Boss’s hit songs, making for some delightful, standout musical numbers.
“Blinded by the Light,” released Aug. 16, is based on journalist Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir “Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion, and Rock N’ Roll” (2007). Directed by Gurinder Chadha and co-written by Paul Mayeda Berges, Manzoor and Chadha, the film follows Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra), a teenager living in Luton, England in 1987.
Javed is an aspiring writer frustrated with his family’s traditional Pakistani lifestyle. He dreams about independence from his family and hometown, and uses his journals and poems to express these frustrations.
When school acquaintance Roops (Aaron Phagura) lends Javed two Bruce Springsteen cassettes, he ignores them at first. But after learning that his father (Kuvinder Ghir) was laid off, Javed fears his education and future are in jeopardy.
Desperate and alone, Javed throws his poems in the gutter outside. He returns to his room, slips the first Springsteen cassette into his Walkman, pulls his headphones over his ears and is instantly electrified by Springsteen’s music.
It’s here “Blinded by the Light” finds its footing with an enthralling, fantastical dance sequence set to “Dancing in the Dark” and “The Promised Land.” The musical number leads Javed around his room, through his house and out into the storm raging outside, where he scrambles to recover his poetry.
Javed is hooked. His first listen expands into a full-fledged obsession. In Springsteen, Javed finds someone who understands his frustration and knows the way out. This new validation gives Javed the motivation to stand up to his father, meet a girl (activist teen Eliza, played by Nell Williams) and make progress in his writing.
“Blinded by the Light” is too sweet for its own good at times. The cliche script has moments of genuine insight but prefers to handle them in broad strokes — most arguments are shouting matches and every emotional victory is uproariously accompanied by a Springsteen song.
This approach cheapens the story to a degree — Javed’s relationships with his best friend Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) and girlfriend Eliza are mere sidenotes, outlined pleasantly but sparingly, with only minor impacts on the story.
Javed’s writing career is handled similarly. He quickly goes from self-describing his poems as “rubbish” to writing front page content for the local newspaper, almost inexplicably.
While the way the film handles Javed’s friendships, relationship and writing aspirations is heavy-handed at best, its portrayal of his family’s struggles and the racial discrimination they face in 1980s England is tender and genuine.
The film depicts England’s National Front, a fascist, white supremacist political party that marches through Javed’s town to protest non-white immigration in England. In one of the movie’s best scenes, Javed sneaks off to buy concert tickets and gets back just in time to learn his father was attacked by National Front rioters while he was gone.
On top of having the typical coming-of-age movie concerns, Javed and his family must contend with true historical bigotry. The script wisely handles this darker subtext optimistically, never wavering in its belief in music’s power to unite.
The film takes the same approach to Javed’s relationship with his family. Javed’s struggle between personal empowerment and familial responsibility isn’t new, but it’s portrayed sincerely.
When the story isn’t handling bigotry or family drama, it mostly relies on scenes centered around Springsteen’s music to remain compelling. The film could benefit from more full-on musical sequences — it never tops the breathtaking first dance number, which is the movie’s best scene by a wide margin — but Springsteen hits such as “The River” and “Thunder Road” make the accompanying soundtrack phenomenal.
Manzoor, Javed’s real-life counterpart, has seen Springsteen live over 150 times, according to the film’s end credits. His love for Springsteen permeates the script and gives “Blinded by the Light” its emotional core — even Javed’s family problems can be solved with Springsteen’s lyrics, once he distinguishes inspiration from imitation.
The film’s sentiment that music can change the world might be idealistic, but when Javed and his friends are jumping around the screen with unabashed glee, lip-syncing to Springsteen as a line of strangers dance along and the lyrics float around their heads, it seems obvious.
“Blinded by the Light,” rated PG-13, is playing in theaters nationwide.