Recent films using music superstars as their foundation have taken different approaches to telling their stories. “Bohemian Rhapsody” was a traditional biopic of Freddie Mercury and Queen, while “Rocketman” looked at Elton John’s life using his tunes in a musical-theater format. “Yesterday” took a fantasy approach by looking at a world that had never heard of the Beatles.
“Blinded by the Light” also takes an original tactic in its use of Bruce Springsteen’s works as the baseline. The fact-inspired story of a young Pakistani teen who uses The Boss to help him deal with the pain and bigotry in his life shows how powerfully inspirational art can be. A song may not change the world, but “Blinded by the Light” offers the hopeful look of how a few notes can rewrite the melody of a person’s life.
In 1987, Javed (Viveik Kalra) is adjusting to his family’s move from Pakistan to England. The new home is supposed to be a place of great opportunity, but economic troubles and the hatred from the locals makes life painful. The woes are magnified for Javed as he’s also finding his own identity while growing up with his father’s tight restrictions.
Relief comes for Javed when he’s given the music of Bruce Springsteen. As he listens to each tune, Javed realizes the back catalog is a poetic manifesto for how he can change his life. He hears a message of hope aimed at the working class in songs like “Born to Run” and “Dancing in the Dark.” Inspired by the music, Javed’s life begins to change, with a little help from one of his teachers (played by an underused Hayley Atwell) who sees great writing promise in her student.
The story by Sarfraz Manzoor, Paul Mayeda Berges and director Gurinder Chadha does dip into cheesy moments, but the overall product finds its strength in examining race relations, family drama and the power of music. The film gets a dramatic anchor from the story being based loosely on the life of journalist Manzoor.
The two most powerful storylines are the mistreatment of immigrants and how Javed copes, plus the father-son confrontations triggered by traditions. It’s tough enough being a teenager, but the film shows more layers when his father (Kulvinder Ghir) wants a new life for his family but won’t give up his old ways.
Chadha (“Bend It Like Beckham”) delivers both with insight that comes from a Kenyan-born South Asian background and growing up in London with a passion for Springsteen’s music. She stages each emotional family confrontation with a deep sense of sympathy and compassion for both sides. She doesn’t take a stand but lets the battles wage on with a realistic flow.
That’s not quite the case with the love story between Javed and his English girlfriend, Eliza (Nell Williams). The film spends a lot of time casting a spotlight on hatred shown toward immigrants, but the relationship seems to go unnoticed. A little more tension would have given the movie another nice dramatic layer.
That’s only a small problem, as is the use of on-screen graphics to show the words to the Springsteen songs. The visual display would have been appropriate for “Rocketman,” but here it’s more of a distraction.
Other than a few blips, “Blinded by the Light” is a production that is as strong as any Springsteen anthem and as inspiring as any lyrics by the Boss.
★★★ “Blinded by the Light,” with Viveik Kalra, Nell Williams, Kulvinder Ghir, Hayley Atwell, Dean-Charles Chapman. Directed by Gurinder Chadha, from a screenplay by Chadha, Paul Mayeda Berges and Sarfraz Manzoor. 114 minutes. Rated PG-13 for thematic material, language. Opens Aug. 16 at multiple theaters.