‘Blinded by the Light’ Celebrates One Man’s Unwavering Love for Springsteen

Any writer who has turned to a pair of headphones for guidance at some point in their lives will recognize a little bit of themselves within Javed (Viveik Kalra), the poetic teen protagonist of Gurinder Chadha’s often sweet, occasionally trite, quasi-musical, “Blinded by the Light.” Inspired by the words and music of Bruce Springsteen, as well as journalist and co-screenwriter Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir “Greetings from Bury Park.”

Springsteen’s music makes up the very heart and soul of “Blinded by the Light.” The best thing about the movie is how it captures the catharsis of personal discovery through banger sequences that are driven by song lyrics, but never completely breaks out into musical numbers. From a formulaic standpoint, the narrative beats are nothing new. As a coming-of-age film it’s a spiritual compatriot to Chadha’s 2003 indie favorite, “Bend it Like Beckham,” with less on its mind — but the stylistic toe-dips are fun, touching and expressive.

Set in Luton, England in 1987, the movie begins with a flashback voice-over, telling us that Javed has diligently kept a diary for most of his life. He wants to be a writer but has long kept the hobby a secret. His father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), a Pakistani immigrant, insists that the boy get a degree in something more practical, that will better help get him a job to aid in providing for the family. But Javed dreams of a very different life than the casual business khakis future his parents have planned for him. When his new English teacher, Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell), learns of his ambitions, she takes it upon herself to motivate her student into seeing the worth of his writing.

Believing she is the only person who finds value in his work, Javed gets creatively discouraged one evening and throws all his hand-written poems to the wind. As he slams the door to his room, two cassettes lent to him by his classmate, Roops (Aaron Phagura), fall on the floor. After popping the tapes in and turning on his Walkman, Javed’s world is forever changed. Bruce Springsteen’s writing resonates with the poet so much, he rewinds the tracks to listen to the songs repeatedly. Juxtaposing the lyrical discovery against Javed running around his home and communal courtyard, he scrambles to collect the words that would have floated away if he hadn’t pressed play.

Feeling as if Springsteen’s music speaks straight to his soul, Javed becomes a different person. Previously picked on by racist bullies, the Pakistani teen begins to stand up for himself and gets the courage to ask out the girl he likes, Eliza (Nell Williams), a political firecracker whose parents see their relationship as an act of rebellion. Javed even starts cutting the sleeves off his clothes and plastering posters of “The Boss” on every corner of his wall.

Everything seems to be going well before his father is laid off from his job. This is where the script begins to throw some cliché wrenches into the equation, which is where “Blinded by the Light” starts to drag itself down. While the motivational quality of the movie is well-meaning, the formula is wrought with plot conveniences, surface-level ideas and stereotyped supporting players. It sets up too many side characters and tends to forget about them, intermittently, until their assigned screenplay purpose arrives, often as if on cue.

We are introduced to Roops and Eliza early on, and they both disappear for a noticeable amount of time. Ms. Clay always happens to be there with wise words of inspiration, before becoming absent from the narrative again. Javed’s mother, Noor (Meera Ganatra), and sister, Shazia (Nikita Mehta), both function as periphery characters afforded little personality. 

The most tiresome aspect is Malik’s cliché resistance towards his son’s interests. While a realistic portrayal of an oppressive father figure, the movie simply relies too heavily on parental disapproval and accented humor. Some running gags start out amusing but get old quickly. The domestic conflict of Chadha’s “Bend it like Beckham” is far more comically nuanced and better woven into the stakes of the drama.

Kind of a case of one step forward, two steps backward, “Blinded by the Light” isn’t a film that’s aiming for deep commentary on culture clash or racial tension. It might have benefitted from cutting the more shoehorned social topics out of its script. If the movie committed to its resolve, that would be one thing, but Chadha’s newest offering plays better as YA escapism. 

The nature of the lyrical sequences are sure to inspire debate over what precisely defines a film that is driven by music as a musical. The song-writing focused numbers sort of break through the wall of fantasy, but simultaneously exist in a heightened reality. Sometimes what happens in a musical song and dance has direct consequences on the film. These scenes almost erase the line between what is a dream and what’s real. It’s better not to think too hard about them. “Blinded by the Light,” works best when you let the lyrics carry your emotions off, so you can cease thinking about the flaws of the film.

Blinded by the Light” opens Aug. 16 in theaters nationwide.