Posted in: Review

Blinded by the Light

There may not (yet) be a Bruce Springsteen jukebox musical on Broadway, but filmmaker Gurinder Chadha makes a pretty good case for one with her exuberant Springsteen-themed coming-of-age drama Blinded by the Light. Based on the memoir by Sarfraz Manzoor (who co-wrote the screenplay with Paul Mayeda Burges and Chadha), Blinded uses Springsteen’s music as a way to explore working-class immigrant life in 1980s Great Britain. Main character Javed (Viveik Kalra) is the son of Pakistanis who emigrated to the U.K. decades earlier, hoping to provide a better life for their children. In the small city of Luton in 1987, though, Javed’s family faces prejudice and economic hardship, and Javed himself feels disconnected from the traditional Pakistani life that his parents want for him.

Instead of studying economics and agreeing to an arranged marriage as his strict father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) expects, Javed wants to become a writer and date his cute English classmate Eliza (Nell Williams). He writes lyrics for his best friend Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) to sing in his band, and scribbles away in secret journals that he doesn’t let anyone else read. But the shy Javed starts to feel liberated when Sikh classmate Roops (Aaron Phagura) introduces him to the work of an American singer-songwriter named Bruce Springsteen. By 1987, Springsteen’s music has already been tagged as “dad rock,” but Javed connects with it on a deep emotional level, identifying with Springsteen’s lyrics about blue-collar struggle and the desire to escape a provincial hometown.

When an encouraging English teacher (Hayley Atwell, underused) pushes Javed to share his writing and gets him an internship at the local newspaper, he starts to see a world beyond Luton open up to him. Through it all, he escapes into Springsteen’s songs, which Chadha depicts as something between a music video and a full-on production number. The first night that Javed listens to Springsteen on his cassette Walkman, he wanders through the streets of Luton as Springsteen lyrics are projected around him, emphasizing the way the words move him and inspire him. Musical numbers featuring Javed’s wooing of Eliza and the teens running through the streets of Luton after commandeering the school radio station to blast Springsteen blur the line between reality and fantasy in a vibrant, liberating way.

The down-to-Earth drama is not always as effective, especially the core dynamic between Javed and his father, whose rift is a little too simplistic in its origins and its eventual solution. Kalra and Williams have appealing chemistry, but Eliza is mostly a background plot device for Javed’s journey of self-discovery. That journey is engaging and fulfilling, though, and the way that Javed connects with Springsteen demonstrates how universal these coming-of-age stories can be. Chadha pulled off a comparable feat with her 2002 breakthrough film Bend It Like Beckham, and Blinded is even more of a rousing crowd-pleaser. It can be cheesy at times, but it never feels phony, and the outsize emotions of Springsteen’s music lend credibility to the movie’s similarly broad emotional beats.

If anything, the movie could have gone broader, leaning more into its musical conceits like John Carney’s similar ’80s-set British working-class musical Sing Street. Chadha sometimes misses the mark between naturalistic drama and bombastic musical, but Blinded has enough earnest enthusiasm and heart to make up for most of its rough patches. Javed’s unabashed fandom should win over even the most hardened skeptic.