One of the highest ideals of Bruce Springsteen fandom is that his songs transcend the middle-aged white guys from the New York metropolitan area and Midwest to whom they’re frequently ascribed. Towns that rip the bones from your back, songs about how you gotta live it every day, how the old world’s rough and getting rougher — those are universal. Teenage anxiety and class struggle are recognizable even if the people going through it aren’t.
At least, that’s what The Boss has tried to preach for the last 45 years. And it’s the thesis at the core of Blinded by the Light, director Gurinder Chadha’s adaptation of a memoir by the son of Pakistani immigrants growing up in Thatcherite Britain who found escape and salvation in the voice of the Jersey Shore.
The protagonist, Javed (Viveik Kalra), lives with his parents and two sisters in Luton, an industrial London suburb sliding into decay under the kind of austerity policies that depress jobs and seed white animosity. His domineering father (Kulvinder Ghir), an immigrant laid off from his factory, commands him to “stay away from the girls” and study economics rather than a more artistic pursuit like the poetry and songwriting to which Javed aspires.
So what can Javed, stuck in a town full of losers and little chance of pulling out, possibly win? He writes lyrics for one friend (Dean-Charles Chapman), a New Romantic wannabe, and hides his creative writing efforts from his family. Luckily, he’s got another friend, Roops (Aaron Phagura), who’s already discovered Springsteen and slips him a pair of cassettes.
It’s from there that Blinded by the Light dives headlong into Springsteendom, but in such a messy, inconsistent fashion that it becomes a kind of musical that almost defies categorization. “Dancing in the Dark” narrates Javed deciding to embrace his writerly ambitions, with lyrics flashing on screen as he trudges through a windstorm. Other songs become dream sequences. And “Born to Run” gets a full song-and-dance treatment.
But Javed’s self-actualization via Springsteen isn’t so much through the Boss’s music as it is through the lyrics. The Springsteen of Javed’s inner monologue is less rock star and more poet, so much so that he takes to reciting verses out loud to bullies, strangers and a girl he’s crushing on (Nell Williams). Springsteen’s a brilliant and prolific lyricist — and this isn’t the E Street Band movie — but in reality it’s the combination of words and music that make you want to wrap your legs ‘round these velvet rims.
I’m almost certain Chadha did not mean to be experimental. Films like Bend It Like Beckham show off her skill in bringing the experiences of Desi British teens to larger audiences. Many of those elements are on display here. Javed’s home life is relatable, from the money struggles to parental expectations to their place in a putatively diverse society. That’s what Sarfraz Manzoor, the author of the memoir that inspired Blinded by the Light (he’s also one of the credited screenwriters), connected to when he discovered Springsteen.
Yet no matter how often Javed soaks in one of Springsteen’s greatest hits, the film hits his strongest notes when he’s brought back to earth. The revelation that one of his sisters (Nikita Mehta) has secretly been chasing her own version of pop-inspired rebelliousness needs no accompaniment from the Boss at all. And a sequence in which his family encounters a violent white-nationalist rally set to chants of “Send them back” is deeply unsettling, more so than what Chadha probably intended after recent real-world events in this country.
There’s a natural connection in that kind of despair. When doesn’t a look at what’s going on in the world want to make you listen to “Badlands” or “Atlantic City” or “The Rising” for the 900th time?
Yet that’s what makes Blinded by the Light such a noble failure. Javed spends so much time talking about how he feels Bruce is speaking to him that the movie often forgets to put in the work of what that realization means for the people and the world around him. Relationships with his peers — including his budding romance — are sporadic and perfunctory, and big emotional payoffs feel sudden and unearned.
Springsteen’s discography might have matured into comfort food over the decades, but he’s always been about hard truths. The people he sings about are often on their way to walking in the sun; they never actually get there, though. Javed’s got the hero worship down, but little else, in large thanks to the scattershot storytelling. Maybe it’s the movie embellishments — the girlfriend was invented and the family hardships heightened — but what could’ve been a fascinating outsider’s tale told plausibly with stadium-filling American rock music is instead a fairly standard and disappointingly teenage yarn.