Imagine discovering a musician or a band that hit you so hard you’d have to think they only exist to chronicle your life. Blinded by the Light presents such a scenario, as the film is a loose adaptation of a memoir by Sarfraz Manzoor, a British journalist born in Pakistan. Manzoor is a massive fan of Bruce Springsteen, and the story behind this is now a fantastic coming-of-age movie placing sincerity first, with a healthy dose of Springsteen’s music coming in second.
In this cinematic take on Manzoor’s life, Javed (a winning Viveik Kalra in his first lead film performance) is a teenager growing up in the town of Luton, England, in 1987. Given the turmoil of the times challenging Javed and his family to deal with economic struggles, as well as racial discord, things have not been easy. While Javed has aspirations to become a writer (he writes poems every day), his overbearing father (veteran actor Kulvinder Ghir, who brings a good dose of humor to the role) has different things in mind for Javed’s future. With the pressures of expectations as well as intolerance constantly biting at him, Javed is fortunate to meet Roops (Aaron Phagura), who introduces our sensitive hero to “The Boss.”
Directed and co-written by Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham), there’s obviously no way to make this movie come alive the way it was intended were it not for the support of Springsteen. Upon reading the script, the celebrated singer-songwriter immediately gave permission to have his songs featured in the film. We end up hearing 17 different tracks, and it’s pretty amazing how well they are all incorporated.
Functioning like a fitting companion to Sing Street and Billy Elliot, Blinded by the Light is not a full-on musical, but it uses Springsteen’s songs to best convey the emotions Javed must face. Chadha brings in the kind of enthusiasm one would see fit for a Bollywood production as well, even as we watch Javed and his friends race through the troubled town of Luton, with “Born To Run” blaring on the soundtrack. There’s no shortness of earnest sensibilities present in this film, which is sure to only be a bother to those less willing to engage with such a humble crowd-pleaser.
It won’t hurt if you have any sort of emotional connection to Springsteen’s music. However, even as one who hasn’t accepted The Boss as all that’s good in the world (though this film certainly tries to make that case), it’s exciting to watch Javed go from disheartened dreamer to giddy obsessive. As Javed changes his look and doubles down on his creative passions, to the delight of his writing professor (Hayley Atwell), we watch the film superimpose Springsteen’s lyrics on the screen, and follow Javed’s ascension towards a better place.
As the film reveals more story areas to explore, I was taken by how little plot there is to deal with. That’s not meant as a strike against the film, as I found this to work in its favor. While the characters outside of Javed could have been defined more, Blinded by the Light does what is needed to keep very human concerns in mind. Javed’s father, Malik, is not a major adversary to overcome, but a person struggling to provide for his family. There is no central bigot that needs to be defeated here, as Javed must learn how to tackle racism in ways that keep his head above it all. This movie is as much a story about family, as it is about finding oneself, and that’s a great benefit.
Rather than watching Blinded by the Light contort itself to have every possible problem solved over the course of this film’s running time, the focus is on a seminal time in Javed’s life and how it was impacted by The Boss. The result is a movie infectious with the joy we get to see from Javed, as he turns things around. Whether it’s wooing a very political-minded classmate (Nell Williams) he has a crush on by singing “Thunder Road” (with support from a very welcome Rob Brydon), or doing what it takes to have a chance at seeing Springsteen’s home town in New Jersey, there is plenty of fun to go along with some very human drama.
Films like Blinded by the Light come along once in a while to break up a year full of more serious-minded or out-of-this-world topics. Thanks to an endearing cast and its feel-good aspirations, this is the kind of movie that challenges you not to like it. Bringing in a healthy dose of identity struggles to go along with the more specific challenges facing a British-Muslim family in 80s England only further adds to the authenticity of a movie placing one foot in fantasy. Honestly, you won’t want the good vibes coming from this film to fade away.