The future looks bleak for Javed (Kalra), a shy and dreamy 16-year-old aspiring poet/writer of Pakistani descent, stuck in the blue-collar town of Luton, England, with his conservative Muslim family circa 1987. It’s the reign of Margaret Thatcher’s economic and social terror, a time when national unemployment has climbed sky high, fueling far-right extremism and racial violence against immigrants of color. If the shadow cast by this political climate wasn’t enough, Javed’s authoritarian father (Ghir) has already mapped out his son’s adult life, from the education he will pursue to the vocation he will make and (one day) the woman he will be betrothed to. It’s a death trap, a suicide rap for someone his formative age, or so he may think in his darkest hours.
But when a kindred-soul classmate introduces this despairing young man to the music of Bruce Springsteen, the passion of the poetry streaming through his Walkman shocks him with a jolt to the senses. Javed may be an ocean away from the working-class shores of Asbury Park, New Jersey, but he feels an emotional connection to the themes in the two cassettes (Darkness on the Edge of Town, Born in the U.S.A.) that he plays over and over – the purity of personal freedom, the reward of hard work, the healing power of romantic love – all of which of empower him to feel something hopeful. The scrawling lyrics of Springsteen’s songs, as visually witnessed by Javed in Blinded by the Light (at least, in his mind’s eye), may amateurishly convey the intensity of their meaning to him, but despite the juvenile awkwardness of the execution, one thing can’t be denied: This is the rare movie to acknowledge the impact popular music can have on our lives, particularly during the period of your life when you’re struggling to figure out who you are and – more importantly – who you want be.
Based on a memoir by journalist Sarfraz Manzoor – a major fanboy who’s seen the Boss perform in concert over 150 times – the movie (adeptly directed by Chadha) is a lovely feel-good experience, even when it traverses certain cultural tropes and amplifies emotions beyond what you might rationally imagine. (Then again, if you’re an impressionable teenager, those emotions may be right on the money.) While an infectious joy threads the film (witness the shambling musical number “Born to Run” in the streets of Luton), ultimately, Blinded by the Light rests on Kalra’s sturdy shoulders. He does the film proud, as you watch his character physically and emotionally mature over the course of a fairly quick two hours. Kalra’s penultimate lessons-learned scene will wring some well-deserved tears, but it’s the way he earlier trades a Members Only jacket for a denim one that may stick with you most. The moment lasts only for a split second, but in the spirit of Springsteen’s powerful 1978 ode to self-realization, “The Promised Land,” you see our burgeoning hero announce to the world: “Mister, I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man.”
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