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‘Blinded by the Light’ Review: Testing the Limits of Springsteen


Many musicians refer to themselves as storytellers, but few of them have the tales to back up the claim. Bruce Springsteen does. And his song-stories about desperate dreamers trying to break free of dead-end towns resonate far from what he once called “the swamps of Jersey,” whence his music originated.

The new movie “Blinded by the Light” — based, as its opening announces, on a true story — showcases Springsteen’s music as the driving force in the life of a 1980s teenager in the London suburb of Luton. Javed, the son of Pakistani immigrants, is 16 and feeling very stuck in a one-horse town in which the local racists are keen to shut down its one mosque.

An aspiring poet and lyricist, Javed, unlike many of the characters in Springsteen’s songs, isn’t a car nut. He’s not only clueless about all things chrome-wheeled and fuel-injected, but he’s also rarely permitted to drive his family’s bucket of bolts. Yet he is intimate with other Springsteenesque conditions: of being tired and bored with himself, of wanting to change his clothes and hair and face, of asserting that he’s a man and not a boy, and of believing in the promised land.

Initially a Pet Shop Boys guy, Javed, played with winning charm and sincerity by Viveik Kalra, has his sensibility recalibrated after a friend lends him two of the Boss’s cassettes during a particularly fraught time with his family. Many of his hassles result from his relationship with his movie-standard-issue immigrant father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir, dignifying a role that gives him little to work with), who’s been laid off from his assembly-line job at Vauxhall Motors.

Directed by Gurinder Chadha, best known for the effortlessly charming “Bend It Like Beckham,” “Blinded by the Light” is simultaneously overdetermined and unfocused, and shows a lot more strain.

One of the movie’s screenwriters, Sarfraz Manzoor, is the author of the true story on which the movie is based, the 2007 memoir “Greetings From Bury Park.” But here, liberties beyond the normal ones were taken with the factual narrative. The movie relentlessly barrels to a reconciliation that the actual circumstances of Manzoor’s life story made impossible.

Which would be more forgivable, if the movie were not equally relentless in checking dozens of boxes of poignance and treacle. The movie’s heavy-handedness is exemplified by a scene in which Javed abandons his sister on her wedding day to run to an HMV music store to buy Springsteen tickets. Immediately thereafter his family runs right smack into a march by the racist thugs of the National Front. They rough up Malik, who at that point realizes his son isn’t around. Then Javed’s politically-active white girlfriend helps dad clean up a bloody nose. Speaking of the nose, this movie is on it an awful lot.

Then there are the scenes in which the movie flirts with being a musical, giving a “Rock ’n’ Roll High School”/Bollywood treatment to Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” and “Born to Run.” These songs have the power to move, inspire, make you dance. For the first time in my experience of Springsteen, they made me want to hide under my seat.

Blinded by the Light

Rated PG-13. Mister, I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man. Running time: 1 hour 57 minutes.


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