Luton, England is thousands of miles away from Freehold, New Jersey. But for a disaffected teenager growing up there and yearning to break free? It's a death trap, it's a suicide rap.
So sang Bruce Springsteen in “Born to Run.” And the song travels halfway around the world to hit a shy British teenager of Pakistani descent right between the eyes in “Blinded by the Light,” Gurinder Chadra’s joyful and incandescent ode to the power of pop music.
The movie is based on a the memoir “Greetings from Bury Park” by Sarfraz Manzoor, a writer and Springsteen superfan who credits the music of the Boss from helping him find his identity growing up in the 1980s after his family emigrated from Pakistan to Britain.
In the fictionalized film, the protagonist is Javed (Viviek Kalra), who chafes under the rule of his autocratic father (Kulvinder Ghir) at home, and feels equally powerless and alone outside in Thatcher-era Britain. The neighborhood factories are closing, and the racist National Front scapegoats immigrants as the problem. As racists march in the street, and a skinhead spits in Jerad’s face, any resemblance to the current turbulent political climate, in Britain and in the United States, is surely intentional.
Javed pours his frustration and alienation into poems that he won’t let anybody reads. Salvation comes in the form of two cassettes, “Born in the USA” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” pressed into Javed’s hand by Roops (Aaron Phagura), a new friend at school and a Springsteen obsessive. Skeptical, Javed sticks a cassette into his Walkman and puts on his foam headphones. As “Dancing in the Dark” plays in his ears, Chanda scraps of lyrics from the song flash on screen (“I’m just tired and bored with myself”) and whirl around Jerad’s head.
By the time the song ends, he’s a Springsteen true believer.
“Blinded by the Light” becomes an old-fashioned tale of teenage rebellion, as Javed, fueled by Springsteen’s music and lyrics, tries to forge a life for himself that’s apart from the wishes of his father. As he puts himself forward, sharing his poems with a supportive teacher (Hayley Atwell), making plans to leave town for college and falling for a politically active classmate (Nell Williams), Springsteen songs literally become the soundtrack to his life.
Nearly 20 Springsteen songs appear in the film in some form or another. At times, “Blinded by the Light” edges closer to becoming a jukebox musical, with Javed strutting through town to “Born to Run,” even leading a big dance number in the middle of the town square. But mostly, it’s the internal change that the music makes on Javed that’s the focus of the film, as he gains confidence and perspective.
At times, Kalra’s unabashed joy on screen is so overt it almost seems silly, but that might be the point. If you’re not going to let yourself become a little ridiculous over about your favorite music when you’re a teenager, when will you?
Chadra, who knows how to make a crowd-pleaser (her first film was "Bend it Like Beckham"), plays these sunny musical moments against the often grim reality of life for working-class immigrants in Britain. Javed’s father gets laid off from the factory, and for the first time the son sees chinks in his imperious father’s armor. The racists run riot in the streets – in one stark, painful image, we see Javed standing in the street, head hanging in sorrow, as a giant Thatcher “Uniting Britain” poster looms overhead.
Of course, the power of Springsteen’s songs is that as much as they rail against the limits of working-class life, they brim with love and respect for those decaying industrial cities and the people who live there. In the end, Javed has to learn all the lessons of a Springsteen song, including coming to see his father as a real human being.
“Blinded by the Light” could use a little trimming, and for a film billed as a comedy-drama, it provokes more grins than actual laughs. Most of them come from Rob Brydon, Steve Coogan’s fellow traveler in the “Trip” movies, donning a silly wig to play the father of one of Javed’s friends.
Being a Springsteen fan will almost guarantee you’ll like “Blinded by the Light” – they should have an included a ticket inside every copy of the Boss’s new “Western Stars” album. But it’s open-hearted, old-school sincerity should appeal to a wide range of audience members as well. Even my hip-hop loving teenage daughter liked it. She still didn’t want to listen to Springsteen on the way home, though. Oh well.