'Blinded by the Light': A Springsteen Musical That Knows Which Buttons to Push

An engineered musical about a Pakistani teen stuck in a dreary English city fulfills its feel-good mission – thanks to a Walkman and Bruce Springsteen songs

"Blinded by the Light."
Nick Wall / © 2019 Warner Bros

In 1976, Bruce Springsteen was already a star. His album “Born to Run” had gained him fame and fans, but he himself was also an obsessive fan. One night, after a concert in Memphis, he snuck into Graceland, dragging along his mate from the band, Steve Van Zandt (Silvio in “The Sopranos”). The two climbed the fence of the estate and ran toward the door, hoping to hand their idol a song written for him. They quickly discovered that Elvis wasn’t home, but his security guards were. Elvis died a year later, leaving his fan Bruce without a song but with an anecdote he likes to retell. In his words, “I couldn’t imagine anyone not wanting to be Elvis Presley.”

Since then, Springsteen has become a megastar, selling tens of millions of albums, winning numberless prizes (even an Oscar) and receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama. Now he’s the star of a feature film without having to appear in it or otherwise lift a finger. His songs and the messages he wants to get across color the whole of “Blinded by the Light,” even if the singer himself is not there. The plot revolves around the true story of a fan who discovered Springsteen at a critical age and made him part of his life in a way that only teenagers can do with music. As such, Springsteen is less Springsteen than he is a very specific role he fulfilled for a very specific teen at a very specific moment.

It’s 1987 in England, a particularly turbulent period in which the country bled jobs under the conservative policy of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The semi-fictitious protagonist is Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra), a 16-year-old of Pakistani descent who is doomed to come of age in the dreary city of Luton. Javed feels out of place everywhere, both at home and outside. He stands out in this white, racist city, with its raucous extreme-right minority. Nor does he find his place at home, with its stultifying traditionalism and conservative ethic, and two sisters to boot. His parents might have been considered liberals in Pakistan, but in British terms they are flagrantly regressive. His inflexible father makes it clear to him that there’s a shortlist of professions he can choose from, in the range between the bar and accountancy. But what turns Javed on is writing.

Then, with perfect timing, a new friend pops up, also from an immigrant family, who gives him a Bruce Springsteen tape to listen to. Everyone who was ever a teen remembers a similar moment of musical discovery; only the musicians and the technologies change. The instant he presses the play button on his Sony Walkman, his whole life suddenly takes on meaning: he is blinded by the light.

Objectively, his life doesn’t change, certainly not for the better. But now he has a soundtrack of his own, and with it comes purpose. He still feels imprisoned in his life, which is punctuated by clashes at home with his father and clashes outside with racists. But he has a Walkman.

The story is based on the autobiography of the British journalist Safraz Manzoor, but the influence of the director, Gurinder Chadha, is palpable. In their screenplay, the two modify Manzoor’s narrative considerably in order to transform his life into a story that transcends place and time. As she did in “Bend it Like Beckham,” Chadha – who was born in Kenya to Indian parents – aspires once again in her optimistic way to address the experience of immigrants and their children. This time she has opted for a type of musical in an attempt to create a persuasive feel-good movie. With Javed’s world providing the point of view, the soundtrack injects color into a gray life. Earphones shutting out the world, his finger on the play button, Javed is transported into a marvelous musical world and along the way is fortunate to have a teacher who cultivates his writing skills and to meet a rebellious girl who piques his curiosity.

Sparks of Broadway

The dramatic story progresses together with the rhythm of the music and with Springsteen’s narratives about people who yearn to escape their gloomy lives. It’s a “type of” musical, because it’s not exactly that. Like “Mamma Mia!” and “Yesterday,” the film possesses a dimension of musical hits, songs that give expression to the unconscious inner processes of a hapless adolescent. Some of the songs provide small sparks of Broadway. For example, a crowded scene in a municipal market that connects Javed to an older generation who liked Springsteen in the previous decade, and where everyone comes together to dance and lip-sync. Most of the time, the soundtrack sounds like it was compiled to please fans of the Boss. In fact, in many scenes the lyrics appear on the screen while Javed only moves his lips. Less musical, more karaoke.

The director’s decision to accord the music a changing role doesn’t always go down smoothly, either: The film is split into segments that are not of uniform quality. Chadha’s cinematic technique has certainly improved since “Bend it Like Beckham,” but this time it’s a little too much. The backdrops, the cinematography, the dialogue – it’s all too calculated and too precise. If an algorithm were written to distill the year 1987 into clothes, music, hairstyles and graffiti, the result would probably look like this movie. Chadha is so exact that it feels engineered.

Her proficiency also slides into the emotional layer of “Blinded by the Light,” and it’s clear that the director knows when and how to press the smile and weep buttons. Still, there are advantages to this style in the creation of a musical, where the non-present becomes present and is hurled straight into our faces through songs.

With a convincing lead who arouses compassion, and a measured script by Chadha and Manzoor, the youthful spirit succeeds in reaching even those who aren’t particularly interested in Springsteen’s songs. The over-the-top, total, infectious adoration of adolescence is presented from the outset as a kind of discovery of America. The filmmakers offer a vivid portrait of the random yet precise way in which teens home in on musical taste. Along the way they also reconstruct the huge mass that music and musicians can fill in the lives of fans, certainly at this age. Bruce, as the singer is referred to, dominates loudspeakers, thoughts, all the walls of Javed’s room and his whole clothes closet. It’s boundless, obsessive puppy love, and as such, not harmful. The only victim is the sense of proportion.

The film offers few surprises. Its plot resonates with the familiar and its end is predictable, but even so, it fulfills its saccharine, optimistic mission. It’s a conservative tale in liberal coating about a son who rebels against his father only to understand how much he resembles him, and about a father who understands the same thing. Springsteen’s songs are well suited to the kid who dreams of leaving the hole he’s stuck in, of becoming independent and of having his masculinity acknowledged. But by the same token it could be a different musician. The desire for liberation and strength is not confined to Springsteen, and therein lies the film’s power.