After starring roles for Freddie Mercury (“Bohemian Rhapsody”), Elton John (“Rocketman”) and the Beatles (“Yesterday”), it’s Bruce Springsteen’s turn to join the mixtape that the movies have lately become.
But Gurinder Chadha’s “Blinded by the Light” isn’t about the Boss’ life or how he recorded his hits. It’s about hearing him — and not in Asbury Park but far away in the British industrial town of Luton, where the British-Pakistani 16-year-old Javed (newcomer Viveik Kalra) finds in Springsteen’s working-class anthems the sound of his soul. When Javed, beleaguered by his overbearing father (Kulvinder Ghir) and feeling hopeless in Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 Britain, presses play on his Walkman one lonely night, he’s almost instantly transformed by “Dancing in the Dark.”
The thrill of being turned on to music has long been dangerous territory for filmmakers. It’s precariously easy to sound cheesy when it comes to rhapsodizing about music. There was great joy in Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous” craving for the raw power of the Velvet Underground: “Gimme some ‘White Light/White Heat!’” But more common are cringe-worthy scenes like Natalie Portman playing the Shins for Zach Braff and telling him they will “change your life” in “Garden State.”
“Blinded by the Light” doesn’t so much circumvent those risks; it barrels right through them. Instead of trying for coolness, “Blinded by the Light” is guilelessly geeky, virtually exploding in earnestness. Chadha, who helmed “Bend it Like Beckham,” gives “Blinded by the Light” a similarly unabashedly feel-good uplift that, even if you don’t bow down before Springsteen, is hard to resist. It has a hungry heart.
Based on Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir about growing up a Springsteen die-hard, “Blinded by the Light” has the frame of what would normally be a song-and-dance musical or a broader comedy. It has elements of both, but it’s primarily a coming-of-age tale and a heartfelt family drama. Javed is a sensitive kid who writes poetry and keeps a diary but has little hope of realizing his dreams — kissing a girl, getting out of Luton — while his father plans his career and, perhaps, his wife, too.
They’re eking out a middle class life when Javed’s father is laid off from the local auto factory — another casualty of Thatcher’s economic policies. The cultural life around Javed doesn’t offer much more in the way of salvation. His pal Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) insists “synths are the future.” And his ‘80s high school is divided by questionable musical taste: “Wham boys” and “Bananarama girls.” Luton, too, isn’t very welcoming of outsiders like Javed’s family; neo-Nazi thugs bully the town’s Pakistani immigrants.
“You will always be Pakistani,” Javed’s dad says. “You will never be British.”
Javed isn’t sure what he wants to be until he’s struck by the lightning bolt of Springsteen, thanks to his Sikh classmate Roops (Aaron Phagura) who shares a few cassette tapes with the serious instruction to “guard these with your life.” Soon thereafter, Javed finds ecstasy on his Walkman and before long he’s dressing in cut-off plaid shirts and quoting Bruce in every interaction. The gospel of Springsteen has an emboldening effect on Javed. He begins to find his own voice, helped along by an inspiring writing teacher (Hayley Atwell), a supportive girlfriend (Nell Williams) and even Matt’s musically simpatico father (a fun Rob Brydon).
“Blinded by the Light” isn’t a new tune, but it’s sung with an infectious passion and it captures something sincere about the globe-spanning, life-changing influence of great pop music. With headphones and the right music, anyone can become born to run. Jake Coyle, AP Film Writer
“Blinded by the Light,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for thematic material and language including some ethnic slurs. Running time: 117 minutes.