When a film starts with an “inspired by a true story” slapped on the screen, it’s usually a telltale sign of a jaw-dropping adversity tale to come, in which a hero or heroine conquers a remarkable set on obstacles on the way to triumph. In Blinded by the Light, however, a blue-collar Pakistani teen in England circa 1987 feels an instant connection listening to Bruce Springsteen and grows up to… write about his obsession. The end. Therein lies the appeal of this Sundance Film Festival-premiering crowd-pleaser, not to mention the beauty of the Boss: Like the film they soundtrack, these lyrics and songs are intended to get a rise out of the anonymous everyman.
Adapted from Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir Greetings From Bury Park: A Memoir, and directed by Gurinder Chadha with the same you-can-do-it! attitude that she brought to the hit Bend It Like Beckham back in 2003, Blinded by the Light is cheesy, predictable and so eager to be loved that it may as well be a tail-wagging puppy dressed in a red bandana. (Characters literally race along a highway as “Born to Run” booms in the background!) But there’s no denying the film’s infectious spirit, and while Springsteen devotees will lap it up, anyone who’s ever inserted a pair of ear buds and pressed play during a private moment of despair will also appreciate its message about the power of music.
Blinded by the Light tells the story of Javed (newcomer Viveik Kalra), an introverted aspiring writer living in the small English town of Luton during the Margaret Thatcher era. His Muslim parents uprooted the family there from Pakistan, and now he’s on the receiving end of vile racial slurs. His strict, newly unemployed dad expects him to be an obedient son and help contribute to the household payroll. At his high school, he doesn’t fit in with the “Wham! boys and Bananarama girls.” He longs for an escape and for somebody, anybody, to understand him.
That person turns out to be one Bruce Springsteen, of Freehold, New Jersey. After a hallway run-in, a fellow student (Aaron Phagura) gives Javed his treasured cassettes of Born in the U.S.A. and Darkness on the Edge of Town, two classic Springsteen albums. Javed pops a tape into his Walkman on a dark and stormy night, and like a clap of thunder, his world opens. When he hears “Dancing in the Dark,” he relates to the cry of loneliness and desperation. Same for the yearning in “The Promised Land.” Chadha perfectly captures the feeling of listening to a deeply personal piece of music for the first time, convinced that the artist has somehow tapped into your soul. Overlaying the lyrics on the screen hammers home the point, somewhat unnecessarily so.
Soon, Javed begins conversing in Springsteen lyrics. A mundane flea market outing culminates in a serenade to his longtime crush. He and his pal break into the high school radio station booth to blare “Born to Run” over the speakers. These over-the-top sequences are designed for audiences to clap their hands and tap their feet, and to their credit, the joy is effective: Like with similar scenes in films ranging from indies Billy Elliot and Sing Street to mainstream hits like Love, Actually and, yes, the recent Beatles-themed hit Yesterday, we’re more than delighted to lose ourselves in the upbeat, life-affirming pop music.
It’s telling, in fact, that out of the 12 songs Springsteen licensed to Blinded by the Light, the majority are rousing anthems such as “Thunder Road,” “Cover Me” and “Badlands”; Javed doesn’t yet have the life experience to contemplate the nocturnal cravings of “I’m on Fire” or murder balladry of “Nebraska.” Perhaps this justifies the decision to ignore his sobering solo effort, Tunnel of Love — recorded and released as Springsteen’s first marriage was starting to crumble — even though its anticipated release coincides with the film’s late 1987 timeline. But it doesn’t explain why so many of Javed’s peers sneer to him that Springsteen’s glory days are over and that his fan base consists of out-of-touch, old-fogey fathers, considering that in the mid-’80s Springsteen was at the height of his MTV stardom and coming off his best-selling album yet, the Diamond-certified Born in the U.S.A. Now that’s creative liberty.
Ultimately, Blinded by the Light is a story about a social outcast trying to come into his own amid long-held family traditions and seemingly hopeless conditions. (Or, in the words of the man himself, “Mister I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man/ And I believe in the Promised Land.”) Javed and his father may never see eye to eye when it comes to the future, but at least they can bond over music that extols the virtues of hard work and respect. The Boss wouldn’t have it any other way.
Blinded by the Light is in theaters on Friday, August 16.