Gurinder Chadha’s cross-cultural comedy “Blinded by the Light” presents a conundrum for a critic, the same one that Danny Boyle’s “Yesterday” did: How much of one’s reaction is inherent to the movie itself, and how much is borrowed goodwill for the artist whose songs permeate the film?
In “Yesterday,” the songs of The Beatles almost papered over a litany of storytelling sins. In this case, as Chadha tells the true story of a British Pakistani teen touched by the music of Bruce Springsteen, the music fits a whole lot better.
Javed Khan, played by newcomer Viviek Kalra, is a second-generation Pakistani teen living in Luton during the 1980s, during the reign of Margaret Thatcher. Luton is depicted as England’s industrial armpit, made even worse when the Vauxhall Motors plant lays off a thousand workers, including Javed’s hard-working dad, Malik (Khulvinder Ghir). Dad insists everyone in the family work for a living while he seeks a new job — and he shoots down Javed’s ideas of going to college and becoming a writer.
Javed tries to write lyrics for his best friend, Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman), who fronts a synth-pop band. Javed’s lyrics and poems are all depressing, politically inflected screeds against the powers that be, and against the growing skinhead movement that is threatening Javed’s Muslim family.
It takes a Sikh classmate, Roops (Aaron Phagura), to introduce Javed to the pride of Freehold, New Jersey — The Boss, Bruce Springsteen.
It only takes one listen, and Javed is hooked. Chadha, who told a similar cross-cultural tale 17 years ago in “Bend It Like Beckham,” illustrates Javed’s awakening by showing him up against a wall, as Springsteen’s lyrics are projected around him, during a literal windstorm. Springsteen’s words, telling of escaping a hard-luck existence in a fast car, are somehow perfectly capturing the feelings of this Pakistani kid in England.
Through Springsteen, Javed starts to find his voice — and even finds, in the militant feminist classmate Eliza (Nell Williams), a girlfriend who’s “ready to take that long walk, from the front porch to my front seat,” as Bruce sang in “Thunder Road.” But as Javed declares “I ain’t a boy, now I’m a man” (“Promised Land”), and is encouraged to write by his English Lit teacher (Hayley Attwell), the wedge between father and son is driven in deeper.
Chadha and her husband and longtime screenplay partner, Paul Mayeda Berges, write a script that is as unabashedly sincere as a Springsteen song. They believe in the influence Springsteen has on Javed’s — or anybody’s — dreams to break away from heartache and find their voice. This sincerity even takes the form of semi-impromptu musical numbers, one of them led by Matt’s lovably old-school dad (Rob Bryden).
“Blinded by the Light” could all fall to pieces, one note of doubt destroying the magic like a kid waiting for the Great Pumpkin, but the movie stays afloat in large part thanks to Kalra. The actor, in his movie debut, is as authentic and earnest a movie teen as ever populated a John Hughes movie, and he makes us feel the yearning he channels in every Springsteen song.
‘Blinded by the Light’
Opens Friday, August 16, at theaters everywhere. Rated PG-13 for thematic material and language, including some ethnic slurs. Running time: 117 minutes.