I believe in being transparent about my biases, and so I need to say that I am keenly predisposed to favor a movie that makes liberal use of the music of Bruce Springsteen. Having said that, Blinded by the Light tells a story that’s likely to connect with so many of us that it hardly seems necessary to even be all that familiar with Springsteen, let alone to be a fan of his music.
The movie tells the basically true story of Javed, a Pakistani teenager from a family of first-generation immigrants in the U.K. in the mid-‘80s, living in the industrial town of Luton, not far from London. Javed writes—poems, diaries, essays—though he doesn’t fancy himself an actual writer, both because he doesn’t assume anything he’s doing is much good, and also because his father is dead-set on Javed having a career with money and stability. Still, despite Javed’s self-perception, you can tell there’s something burning inside him.
But you can’t start a fire without a spark, and for Javed that comes when a classmate shoves a cassette tape of Born in the U.S.A. into his hands. The music immediately hits Javed in the gut, which seems odd to everyone else, but makes perfect sense—so much of Springsteen’s music is about modest people with modest dreams who get kicked around by life and have to find a way to get back up and keep going. And for Javed, that’s exactly what he sees in himself, in his family, and in what seems to be a dead-end town. And suddenly, Javed is ablaze.
I’m acutely susceptible to emotional manipulation in stories like this, and so for me the tears flowed freely, though I have to acknowledge that this was probably an overreaction on my part. But, again: transparency. Javed’s parents, especially, feel like real, complex people, and the performance by Kulvinder Ghir as his father is heartbreaking as he tries so very hard to swim against a current that only pushes him back, in so many ways.
The movie was directed by Gurinder Chadha, who also made 2002’s delightful Bend It Like Beckham, and this one walks some of the same ground, showing the difficulty of reconciling clashing cultural desires and expectations within immigrant families. But Blinded by the Light also exposes different layers, taking place during the pain of Thatcher-era austerity, while racist and xenophobic fervor gripped the U.K, with scenes that are distressingly similar to something you might see if you turned on the news today. The movie doesn’t hide its politics—though there’s no reason it should, Springsteen never has.
None of which is to imply that the movie is too heavy—it’s funny and charming and bursting with life, and my only real complaint is that is wasn’t turned up loud enough during the Springsteen-backed montages. Blinded by the Light takes what may seem to our blinkered eyes to be a particularly American story and shows us that the inspiration of art and fighting for your dreams crosses nearly any boundary.