Ilove the way Javed (Viveik Kalra) loves Bruce Springsteen in “Blinded by the Light.” The Pakistani-British youth sings and dances in the street once he gets the Boss bug. He smiles when listening to the lyrics. He writes about the Boss for his school paper. He wins an essay contest and a trip to America by waxing poetic about Springsteen.
But “Blinded by the Light” isn’t obsessed enough with Springsteen. Real-life fan (and co-writer of the film) Sarfraz Manzooris, the basis for Javed, is legitimately obsessed with Springsteen. He’s seen the Boss over 150 times, we learn in the end credits. But the soundtrack only includes songs everyone knows, no deeper-album cuts. The working-class messages are what everyone has gotten out of his songs, many times over. The film is somehow obsessed with the Boss on a purely superficial level, and that’s not what Springsteen fandom is about.
The familiarity of the story of a second-generation Asian kid in Britain also hurts the film. Director/co-writer Gurinder Chadha is performing the same “tradition versus new passion” mix as on “Bend It Like Beckham” (2003), but with Springsteen music in place of soccer.
The enthusiasm shown by Kalra is irresistible, though – so much so that Javed drives the film more than Springsteen. This is arguably what should happen, but dangit, it still feels weird for Springsteen to be a device.
Javed sings “Thunder Road” amid a crowd to his crush, Cyndi Lauper-looking protest-flyer-distributor Eliza (Nell Williams). Despite the 1987 recession wherein no one – including Javid’s laid-off auto-plant worker father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) – can find jobs, Chadha can’t help but add some cheer. So Javed’s friend’s dad joins Javed in the song, and soon people are dancing in pairs. Then Eliza is dancing with Javed, and soon they are dating and happy.
Later, boombox-blasting hip-hop dancers cut loose to a Bruce song. Springsteen songs as inspiration? Absolutely. Springsteen songs as something to uplift random pedestrians? I’m not so sure about that.
We’re reminded by Tiffany-spinning school DJ Colin (Frankie Fox) – whose show is piped through the grounds like David’s on “Beverly Hills, 90210” – that Springsteen isn’t cool, it’s your dad’s music. This is historically true: 1987 is when “Tunnel of Love” came out. “Brilliant Disguise” is a great song. It’s not a cool song. Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” may or may not be good, but it was definitely cool in 1987.
Javed and friend Roops (Aaron Phagura) are into Springsteen a couple years after his coolness expiration date passed. That doesn’t matter to them or us, but I doubt the cool crowd would be so easily won over.
Despite Chadha’s inclination that people should break into dance to reflect Javed’s mood, “Blinded by the Light’s” vibes are nonetheless negative for the first two acts. Javed and Roops are harassed by racists on multiple occasions; these are not movie-drama showdowns, just awkward and day-ruining instances of bullying.
The film’s political statement-making is rather subtle and amusing. A march of nationalists goes past a Thatcher election billboard with the phrase “Britain United.” Later, Javed says America is even better than the UK because no one cares where you’re from. There’s no pause for a wink or a rim shot.
The mood at Javed’s home is overbearing. Malik is a powerfully angry (albeit never violent) presence, and his idea of freedom is letting Javed choose between doctor, lawyer and estate agent careers. (Writing? That’s a hobby.) His mother, Noor (a tired-looking Meera Ganatra), sews from dawn till bedtime to bring in extra income.
A Depression doesn’t mean everyone is always depressed, of course. Javid and his sister, Shazia (Nikita Mehta), sneak into a Pakistani-music rave that is cleverly held in the daytime to allay adults’ suspicion. In one of Chadha’s nods to balance, Javed removes his ever-present Walkman headphones and briefly lets Springsteen cede his eardrums to Pakistani beats.
Also, Javed’s support group is incredible, including Eliza, Roops, Shazia and English teacher Miss Clay (Hayley Atwell, “Marvel’s Agent Carter”), who does everything short of telling him he’s the man now dawg. Maybe Javed leans negative because he’s listening to too much Springsteen.
“Blinded by the Light” ends strong, with Kalra nailing a climactic speech. I know I watched an emotionally honest portrayal of this Pakistani-British family and their economic struggles. And I got to hear a bunch of Boss tunes, never a bad thing. But something is missing from the final mix.