Movie Review: Blinded by the Light

Do you have to love Bruce Springsteen to enjoy this film? No, but it helps.

On Twitter, I posed the question, “If you’re not a big Bruce Springsteen fan will you still like Blinded by the Light?”

Okay, before you all attack me, I know. Not loving Bruce Springsteen is downright un-American. And don’t get me wrong—it’s not like I actively dislike the guy. It’s just that his brand of earnest, angsty, Rust-Belt rock doesn’t move me. When I was a kid, I was more of an Elvis Costello kind of girl. I liked his verbal dexterity and outsized sense of irony. And here’s the another thing about Bruce: Those epic, three-hour-plus concerts he’s so lauded for? The thought of those actually gives me anxiety. I don’t like to do ANYTHING for three hours. What if I have to pee?

So, with that in mind, I went to see Gurinda Chadha’s new film and I can officially report this: No, you don’t have to be a Bruce fan to enjoy Blinded by the Light . . .but it helps.

The story takes place in 1987, where a Pakistani teenager named Javed (Viveik Kalra), living in a small English town, feels misunderstood. This, of course, has been true of all teenage boys in perpetuity, but it’s particularly true of Javed, a writer and dreamer being raised in a strict Pakistani home, where children are expected to be hardworking and dutiful and not express themselves in any meaningful way. He also has to deal with the neo-Nazis who populate the town, taunting Javed and painting hateful graffiti on the homes of Pakistani families. On top of all that, his father (Kulvinder Ghir) has lost his job at the local factory and is having no luck finding work. (His mother, a seamstress, has to work long hours to help make ends meet.)

It’s in the midst of all this that Javed discovers the Boss­—a Sikh classmate (Aaron Phagura) who is soon to become Javed’s good friend, slides him a couple of cassette tapes. Javed listens to them and he’s hooked. Bruce becomes his obsession—his world. He lines his bedroom with Bruce posters, begins to dress like Bruce, and writes long essays expressing his devotion to the Jersey singer.

On the one hand, Blinded by the Light is about the transformative power of art—the way a certain musician, in this case, can feed your soul, make you feel seen, and inspire your own creative life.

On the other, Blinded by the Light is very much about, well, Bruce. Springsteen’s lyrics often flash on the screen, there are fanciful (and in some cases, fantastical) music numbers set to Springsteen songs, and Javed pretty much talks about Bruce nonstop.

So let’s just say it helps if you love the Boss.

Much of the film plays out in a predictable, if charming, way. I was particularly interested in the dynamics of the Pakistani home, especially against the backdrop of this neo-Nazi threat. In one of the film’s most affecting scenes, Javed and his father visit neighbors who have to put a plastic runner in their vestibule because the neighborhood boys keeps urinating on their doorstep. The neighbors are sheepish and embarrassed, dismissing this hateful behavior as though it doesn’t bother them. In another great scene, Javed’s younger sister takes him to a day party—a makeshift disco of sorts and a rare opportunity for the local Pakistani kids to let their hair down and have fun, since their parents won’t let them go out at night (Javed even takes off the Bruce-playing headphones permanently affixed to his head to enjoy his culture’s music). That’s the kind of specificity I look for in a film, but there’s not as much of it as I would like. Instead, there are clichés: The kindly, pretty teacher (Hayley Atwell) who encourages Javed’s writing, the rebellious girl who catches Javed’s eye, the stern father, and patient, long-suffering mother, etc.

Also, I think Javed is a little selfish? At one point, he earns some money at the local paper and uses it to buy himself Springsteen tickets. And this while his mother is slaving away over a sewing machine and his family is counting every penny. This is fine: selfish characters are interesting! But I don’t think we’re supposed to find Javed selfish. Instead, I think we’re supposed to root for his self-expression and mild rebellion in all its forms.

Still, Blinded by the Light is diverting entertainment, the kind of delightful bit of British whimsy that American audiences seem to eat up. And I cried at the end, just as the film wanted me to. But I can’t get too enthusiastic about it. Now, a film about a British teenager who worships the Elvis Costello masterpiece Imperial Bedroom? Where do I sign?