PLOT In 1980s England, a Pakistani teenager finds unexpected inspiration in the music of Bruce Springsteen.
CAST Viveik Kalra, Nell Williams, Kulvinder Ghir
RATED PG-13 (language)
BOTTOM LINE A heartfelt ode to the promise of youth and the transformative power of music.
"Blinded by the Light," a winning comedy-drama about the world's least likely Bruce Springsteen fan, contains a lot to unpack. Why would a Pakistani teenager living in England during the 1980s gravitate to a traditional American rocker? In this film, Springsteen transcends race, culture and religion to become the patron saint of any working-class kid with big dreams, limited options and an abiding hatred for synth-pop.
The story's hero is Javed, a stand-in for real-life journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, who co-wrote the screenplay from his memoir. He's a typical English teen in the dead-end town of Luton, though his angst is exacerbated by restrictive Muslim parents at home and racist skinheads on the streets. Javed, played by newcomer Viveik Kalra with the hangdog sensitivity of a young Ringo Starr, can't even find escape in the flashy dance music of the day.
An epiphany comes when a Sikh dude named Roops (a charming Aaron Phagura) loans Javed his cassettes of Springsteen's "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and "Born to Run." Through Walkman headphones, The Boss' words of working-class yearning and frustration swirl around Javed's head — literally, as text on the screen — giving him courage to defy his parents and pursue a writing career.
Co-written and directed by Gurinder Chadha, "Blinded by the Light" follows a template at least as old as 1927's "The Jazz Singer" and not too far from Chadha's own "Bend it Like Beckham" (2002). The film owes its biggest debt, though, to "My Beautiful Laundrette," Stephen Frears' 1985 drama about race and class in Thatcher-era London. The period details here are almost as vivid: Javed's crush, Eliza (Nell Williams), is an activist who passes out Red Wedge flyers at school; his friend Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) is a budding musician given to blazers and mascara.
Named for a particularly over-the-top Springsteen tune, "Blinded by the Light" can be embarrassingly hokey, though that's part of its charm. The makeshift musical numbers are endearing, though there are some weirdly implausible moments (as when Javed and Roops disarm several racist thugs by singing to them). A solid anchor of reality comes from Malik, Javed's well-meaning but hardheaded father, played by Kulvinder Ghir in a truly moving performance.
The film ends with pictures of its real-life figures, and there's Roops — not a famous writer but, according to the script, a plumber. Javed may have become the Springsteen of his own story, but Roops is the kind of guy Springsteen writes about. He's the hero of this movie, too.