In ‘Blinded by the Light,’ it’s Springsteen as salvation
The Boss works in mysterious ways. The last place you might expect the lightning bolt of Bruce Springsteen to land would be in late-1980s England on the head of a Pakistani teenager. Yet “Blinded by the Light” — the title comes from a Springsteen song but it sounds religious, and I guess it is — is based on a memoir by British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor about his own growing up in the outskirts of dreary, racist Thatcherite London and about how he was rescued by the music and lyrics of the man from Asbury Park, N.J.
The movie’s sentimental, predictable, fairly sloppy. It’s also a thoroughgoing joy — a cherry popsicle for the end of summer. If certain elements seem familiar from the recent “Yesterday” — classic rock and a South Asian lead character, primarily — “Blinded” is the better bargain: less slick, more cliched, but also more genuinely felt.
“Blinded by the Light” is directed by Gurinder Chadha with the same knack for crowd-pleasing she brought to “Bend It Like Beckham” (2002). The hero, Javed — played by Viveik Kalra with an immensely appealing ardor — is a good Pakistani son secretly seething with discontent. His factory worker father (Kulvinder Ghir) wants him to become an accountant; Javed wants to be a writer. He’s too shy to talk to girls, too nervous to stand up to the National Front thugs who terrorize the local Pakistani community. And he lives in Luton, the kind of place from which, baby, he was born to run.
All this changes when a Sikh acquaintance (Aaron Phagura, in the wacky best friend part) slips Javed a cassette of “Born in the USA,” and the words to “Dancing in the Dark” — “I wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face” — quite literally jump out of the Walkman headphones and up onto the screen. In Bruce Springsteen, Javed has found his voice, his muse — the organizing principle for his rebellion.
“Blinded by the Light” feels like it has been assembled from the spare parts of every other British coming-of-age/you-go-kid comedy of the last 30 years. “Billy Elliott,” “Kinky Boots,” you name it; only the characters and the dramatic hook has changed. We have the conflict with the furious father and the docile, soulful mother (Meera Ganatra), the sassy kid sister (Nikita Mehta), the childhood pal (Dean-Charles Chapman) betrayed by the hero’s newfound confidence and shocked that anyone would trade Duran Duran for that old American guy from the ’70s.
There’s the wise watchful English teacher (Hayley Atwell) who sees Javed’s gift for writing when no others do. Of course there’s the girl, here named Eliza (Nell Williams) and a demure anti-Thatcher activist whose Tory parents look on Javed with discreet horror.
And, much too briefly, there is Rob Brydon — better known as Steve Coogan’s foil and fellow Michael Caine impressionist from “The Trip” film series — as the childhood pal’s father, selling used clothes in the high road and more than willing to join Javed in a delirious, impromptu music-video sequence set to “Born to Run.” Realists need not apply.
A movie like this is going nowhere without the music rights, obviously, but Springsteen and his people appear to have been game. “Blinded by the Light” is propelled forward in anger and earnestness by The Boss’s most adamantine songs: “Badlands,” “Prove It All Night,” “The River,” and the keynote “Promised Land,” with its chorus of “Mister, I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man.” It’s a measure of the movie’s dramatic success that Javed seems very much a boy in the early scenes and very much his own man by the end.
Getting there involves writing contests and family confrontations and lessons learned and climactic speeches before a crowd. No one’s re-inventing the wheel here. But “Blinded by the Light” understands well what unites the discontents of a New Jersey factory worker’s son and the British version of same, which is to say that coursing beneath the musical ecstasy is a rage as political as it is hormonal. There’s a darkness on the edge of Luton, too, and whenever the movie addresses it, it briefly becomes more than a cherry popsicle.
BLINDED BY THE LIGHT
Directed by Gurinder Chadha. Written by Chadha, Mayeda Berges, Sarfraz Manzoor, based on a memoir by Manzoor. Starring Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Dean-Charles Chapman, Nell Williams, Rob Brydon. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 117 minutes. PG-13 (thematic material and language including some ethnic slurs).