Blinded by the Light has faith in the Boss

Gurinder Chadha’s adaptation of Sarfraz Manzoor’s autobiographical book about his love of Bruce Springsteen is corny, obvious… and extremely effective.

I was only a year old when the events of Blinded by the Light happened. Suffice it to say that I did not discover Bruce Springsteen at the same time as the film’s protagonist Javed Khan. I discovered Springsteen almost 20 years later, around 2007, when the indie and punk rock bands I was listening to seemingly all copped to their love of the Boss. I had studiously avoided him (and much of his classic rock, CHOM-bound brethren) out of a determined personal stance that he was lame, old and corny — music made in a laboratory for West Island dads to wash the car to.

This was, of course, not true, and it didn’t last very long. My obsessive idyll with the Boss lasted about three or four years, after which I had listened to the records so much they had burrowed themselves into my brain. (Like all music I’ve obsessed over, I listened to Springsteen so much that I may never need to listen again.) I think it’s pretty easy to dismiss Springsteen outright, especially considering the longevity of his career and the unapologetically corny earnestness of his lyrics, but what Blinded by the Light does better than nearly every movie I’ve seen is capture the overwhelming feeling of art that seems to speak directly to us. My life was not the same as Javed’s when I discovered Springsteen — it, in fact, could hardly have been more different — and yet Blinded by the Light felt like it spoke to me more than any other feel-good, inspirational coming-of-age movie I’ve seen recently. It would be one thing to make a movie about a guy who loves Springsteen so much that he’s inspired to become the next Bruce Springsteen, but that movie has already been made. Blinded by the Light is a movie about how the things we love shape us, which very much works in the “corny but undeniably moving” vein of Springsteen’s greatest works.

Javed (Viveik Kalra) lives in Luton, a suburban British town, with his parents (Gulvinder Ghir and Meera Ganatra) and sisters. Javed’s hard-ass factory worker father came to England from Pakistan for a better life, but he hasn’t quite managed to find it; they still struggle with money, and the family has put all their hopes in the children making something of themselves to bring money in. Javed isn’t interested in the good-boy lucrative plan his father has set out for him. He prefers writing, penning daily diary entries and lyrics for his best friend Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman), a New Romantic pretty-boy type who lives across the way with his clothes store-owning father (Rob Brydon). On the first day back at school, Javed is introduced to Bruce Springsteen’s music through Roops (Aaron Phagura), a Sikh student who swears that Springsteen says more about their lives as the children of working-class immigrants than Javed ever thought possible.

Finding Bruce launches Javed into a journey of self-discovery that should be familiar to anyone who has ever watched a handful of inspirational teen movies, particularly of the British working class ilk. Javed learns that he has talent, that a girl (Nell Williams as activist love interest Eliza) can be interested in him, that he can be more than what his father wants him to be and that there is a way out of Luton. The script is codified to a fault, rather dutifully tying all this together in a way that suggests that the film could very much have been about Javed starting a band without really needed to move any of the big parts. (There’s a “meeting the stuffy in-laws” scene and a public outlining of the protagonist’s deepest secrets in front of an audience!) If all Blinded by the Light was doing was playing feel-good bingo scored to Springsteen songs, it would be a passable bit of entertainment. But for all of its simplistic plotting and fetishistic ’80s production design (of course there’s a guy with a Flock of Seagulls haircut), Blinded by the Light is legitimately concerned with putting forth a specific immigrant experience. The broad strokes could be about anyone, anywhere, really — part of its thesis is that Springsteen’s tales of the disenfranchised talk about Jersey, but they talk to everyone — but the film’s specifically Pakistani identity helps director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) rise above its clichés.

Blinded by the Light also understands exactly how rousing Springsteen can be. Though not exactly a musical, the film does have a couple of extended musical sequences in which the characters diegetically break out into song as the song plays. (For example, Javed puts on “Thunder Road” on his earphones and sings over it, with people eventually joining in but their voices always remaining “on top” of the recording.) It’s kind of a dicey proposition in the best of cases, but these sequences are so gleeful and unvarnished that they somehow power through their extremely cringeworthy roots.

In fact, perhaps the most (or only) groundbreaking thing about Blinded by the Light is how it turns the idea of the music movie on its head. Music biopics revert to blind adulation all the time; they, too, serve as conduits to the delivery of familiar jams, but they add a dimension of mythology and narrative that ultimately detract or bastardize the material. Blinded by the Light is one of the rare movies I can imagine that’s driven entirely by the protagonist’s love and admiration for something. High Fidelity posited that being entirely defined by what you love is no way to live a life; Blinded by the Light posits that, sometimes, basing your life around something you like is the first step towards self-actualization. In that sense, I’ve rarely seen a movie so accurately describe what it’s like to suddenly be consumed by a cultural obsession — even if building your life solely around the philosophies of Bruce Springsteen is probably, ultimately, a terrible idea.

In truth, Blinded by the Light is a pretty tidy and by-the-book feel-good movie; if I sat you down right now and asked you to list things that you think may happen in it, I’m almost certain you would get them all right. These formulaic films exist for a reason, however, and even my calcified heart can’t deny that I bought into it hook, line and sinker. ■

Blinded by the Light opens in theatres on Friday, Aug. 16. Watch the trailer here: