From the Elton John biopic “Rocket Man” to the Beatles-fueled fantasy “Yesterday” to aspiring-singer movies such as “Teen Spirit” and “Wild Rose,” this has been quite a year for movies about the power and magic of popular music.
We can now add to the list “Blinded by the Light,” which is bursting with the music of Bruce Springsteen but is not about a musician — it’s about a disengaged, frustrated, socially invisible teenager who finds salvation and hope and a reason to dream through Springsteen’s voluminous catalog of street stories, power ballads and haunting anthems.
A British teen of Pakistani descent, living in 1987 England.
Directed and co-written with a breezy, irresistible style by Gurinder Chadha (“Bend It Like Beckham”), inspired by the real-life story of the accomplished, Springsteen-loving journalist-broadcaster Sarfraz Manzoor, “Blinded by the Light” is almost unspeakably corny at times as it shifts tones from realistic drama-comedy to flat-out musical — but it’s easy to forgive the bumpy moments in favor of sitting back and enjoying the simple pleasures of an old-fashioned, inspirational, coming-of-age tale …
Especially if you’re a big Boss fan like yours truly.
But even if you’ve never dug Springsteen’s music or you’re unfamiliar with all but a few of his songs, this is a story with familiar, universal, relatable elements.
Not to mention one of the most endearing casts of the year.
Viveik Kalra delivers a winning performance as Javed, a high school student living in a drab and dull town in the southeast of England. Javed dreams of becoming a writer, but he would never share that ambition with his very traditional, first-generation Pakistani parents, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) and Noor (Meera Ganatra).
Especially Dad. He’s a strict, no-nonsense, rigid disciplinarian who believes Javed should spend every waking moment in school, studying at home, or working to help out the financially strapped family. Anything else — writing stories, listening to music, courting a girl — useless, frivolous nonsense.
Despite encouragement from a teacher (Hayley Atwell) who sees real potential in his writing, Javed reaches the breaking point when his father extinguishes his dreams once again.
And that’s the moment Javed discovers the words and music of Bruce Springsteen, and he is instantly transformed by songs such as “Dancing in the Dark” and “Born to Run,” because even though the Boss is from New Jersey and Javed is over here in England, this music speaks to HIM.
From that moment forward, every action Javed takes, every move he makes, every potentially life-changing decision he reaches — it’s all fueled and inspired and driven by the music of the Boss.
Director Chadha sprinkles in some low-key but effective visuals, e.g., we sometimes see some particularly poignant lyrics projected onto walls as Javed gets lost in a song.
One of the brightest sequences comes when Javed musters up the nerve to ask out his classmate crush (Nell Williams) by literally singing “Thunder Road” to her. This leads to a fantastically cheesy set piece straight out of an off-off-Broadway musical.
At times the relatively light spirit of “Blinded by the Light” gives way to some chilling (if a bit heavy-handed) scenes reflecting simmering racial tensions of the time, with neo-Nazi thugs vandalizing the homes of Pakistanis and threatening Javed. Things reach the boiling point when the fascist National Front movement stages a march that turns ugly, while we hear Springsteen’s “Jungleland.” Clarence Clemons’ mournful sax solo is a heartbreakingly effective companion piece to this horrific tableau.
Late in the game, “Blinded by the Light” resorts to some overplayed clichés, including the obligatory high school assembly where Javed’s parents show up just as he goes off script and expresses his true feelings.
Still, even when it feels as if we’ve seen this movie before, we’ve never seen it set to the sounds of the Boss, and we’ve never seen it from the point of view of this particular terrific kid and his family.