Arriving like a fresh gust of wind off the Jersey Shore during a largely torpid summer, “Blinded by the Light” goes one better than the jukebox musicals that have played like barely warmed-over nostalgia buffets and gives the audience something to chew on. Warm, funny, humane and deeply sincere, this ode to Bruce Springsteen, breaking free and belonging isn’t content merely to revel in Springsteen’s greatest hits — although it does, with vibrant, vicarious exhilaration. It delves into the singular power of music, and by extension art itself, to make its audience feel comprehended.
The listener in question is Javed (Viveik Kalra), whom we meet in 1987 as a teenager living in Luton, a working-class town in southeast England, where he and his Pakistani family emigrated years earlier. The son of a strict, ambitious factory worker and a seamstress, Javed has grown up in a patriarchal Muslim household that favors obedience and discipline above such frivolous values as self-expression. Feeling like an outsider in his own home, Javed takes refuge in the music of the era (Madness and the Pet Shop Boys) and aspires to write Brit-poppy songs himself. Some days, he feels just as English as he is Pakistani. Others, he feels like an outsider in both cultures — dislocation that is only exacerbated by the racist graffiti left by National Front skinheads in his neighborhood.
Adapted by Sarfraz Manzoor from his memoir “Greetings From Bury Park” and directed with energy and insight by Gurinder Chadha, “Blinded by the Light” traces Javed’s efforts to separate from his family and find himself, as he discovers Springsteen’s music thanks to a classmate who worships “the Boss of us all.”
When Javed listens to “Dancing in the Dark” for the first time, Chadha stages the sequence like a musical, with dramatic thunder and lightning, projecting the lyrics across the screen. She takes similar liberties throughout a film that develops its own appealing rhythm, setting pivotal episodes in Javed’s growth to such classics as “Backstreets,” “The River,” “Badlands” and “Thunder Road” (which turns into an absolutely adorable production number featuring the hilarious Rob Brydon).
At first, Javed’s mates can’t believe he’s converted to dad rock — they think synthesizers are the future, when everyone knows it’s glockenspiels. But “Blinded by the Light” isn’t about music snobbery or idol worship as much as instinctively gravitating toward someone else’s voice and, in the process, discovering your own. In Javed’s case, his feelings of frustration, pent-up anger, filial rebellion and thwartedness are precise analogues to the seething emotions of longing and liberation that Springsteen has always poured into his lyrics. When Javed’s father loses his job because of Thatcher-era redundancies, Springsteen’s working-class anthems are just as vivid as if they were playing in Detroit or coal country.
Kalra, who makes his feature debut here, plays Javed with quiet, hangdog earnestness that earns the viewer’s trust and empathy almost instantly. The coming-of-age beats in “Blinded by the Light” aren’t necessarily new; Chadha herself already created a classic of the form with “Bend it Like Beckham.” But she’s done it again here in a whole new way, using an entirely different cinematic language that captures Javed’s fraught interior journey with equal parts stylized whimsy and shared anguish.
“Blinded by the Light” is enormous fun, especially when it’s gently mocking ’80s-era technology and Flock of Seagulls haircuts. But a vein of melancholy runs through the movie, echoed in Chadha’s preferred palette of blues, teals and aquas, that is only underscored when Javed considers leaving England entirely and going west, like all dream-driven young people. “No one cares where you’re from in America,” he says, delivering a line that conveys enough idealism and dashed-hopes irony to have been written by the Boss of us all himself.