Bruce Springsteen, poet laureate of the American worker, musical essayist of that ineffable feeling of being caught between a rock and a hard place, is very much a heart-on-sleeve artist. To say as much is not to diminish his music, but to explain why he fits so well in the oeuvre of a director like Gurinder Chadha. The British Indian filmmaker behind such cheerful comedies as Bend It Like Beckham and Bride & Prejudice might not seem like an ideal interpreter for New Jersey’s greatest and grittiest songwriter. But Chadha’s new movie, Blinded by the Light—the story of a British Pakistani boy who falls in love with the music of Springsteen—is her best effort in years, a hugely charming and surprising match of artistic styles.
Chadha excels when she’s at her most sincere, and Blinded by the Light is overflowing with sincerity. It’s based on a memoir by Sarfraz Manzoor that recounts how discovering Springsteen in the ’80s, while growing up in the suburban town of Luton, England, encouraged him to pursue his passion for poetry and writing. The director centers the action in a politically volatile time for Britain, but a rather sedate one in terms of Springsteen’s career, and exults in how great art can inspire people in any circumstances. The core conflict of the film is between Javed (played by Viveik Kalra) and his father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir); Chadha empathetically renders Javed’s efforts to resist his dad’s hard-work-obsessed mind-set, while digging into the teenage insensitivity that sometimes accompanies those battles.
When Javed first discovers Springsteen’s songs, in 1987, the musician is a few years removed from his smash hit Born in the U.S.A. and is barely acknowledged by Javed’s teenage friends. They are all obsessed with New Wave music and coiffed with A Flock of Seagulls haircuts; Javed’s parents, meanwhile, are skeptical of any Western pop culture. The moment Javed pops a Springsteen tape into his Walkman, however, Chadha dramatizes the music as an inspirational bolt from the blue, breaking the fourth wall with lyrics that pop up on-screen around Javed’s head as he listens in awe. Though “Dancing in the Dark” is the first song he hears, he quickly delves into the artist’s angsty ’70s songs, such as “The Promised Land” and “Prove It All Night.” Chadha, who wrote the film with Manzoor and her husband, Paul Mayeda Berges, is highlighting how the romance and emotion of the music speaks to Javed’s anxiety about his restrictive home life and demanding father.
Chadha has made multiple movies about the intergenerational strain that comes with immigrating to Britain, starring teenagers who feel pulled between fitting in with their friends and satisfying their more traditional families. Malik, Javed’s strict father, dismisses his son’s dream of becoming a writer, urging him instead to focus on schoolwork and find a weekend job. But Blinded by the Light stands out by spotlighting the economic stress at work in Javed’s family along with the culture clash. Though Malik can be domineering and severe, he’s also burdened by his struggle to provide for his family after losing his job at a car factory.
The film is set near the end of the Margaret Thatcher era, when Britain was suffering a recession, and it foregrounds the grim climate of the period. Luton, which has a significant Asian population and one of the highest proportions of Muslims in the country, was at the time under siege by the racist National Front party, and those tensions were aggravated by the economic downturn. Chadha, never the subtlest of storytellers, takes every opportunity to underline that though Luton might be thousands of miles from Asbury Park, the local turmoil that Springsteen often sings about was being echoed there.
Blinded by the Light is stuffed with subplots and, at just under two hours, is a little too long. A romantic dalliance with the fellow high-school radical Eliza (Nell Williams) is winning, but Javed’s synth-loving best friend, Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman), is largely superfluous, and an inspirational English teacher (Hayley Atwell) even more so. The best moments, though, reflect Chadha’s strengths as an exuberant storyteller who’s unafraid to lean into earnestness. In one terrific sequence late in the film, Javed attends an Asian disco with his sister, Shazia (Nikita Mehta), and watches in wonder as she dances confidently, transformed from the buttoned-up girl he knows at home. Chadha is showing how art, be it familiar or far from one’s comfort zone, can inspire a sense of freedom. Blinded by the Light does that wonderfully, in a jubilant story that’s told with grounded honesty.