“Guard these with your life,” says the outcast teenager in ’80s Britain, pushing two Bruce Springsteen cassettes (Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born in the U.S.A.) into the hands of another outcast teenager in ’80s Britain, the exchange as solemn and worshipful as if those tapes were the two stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments. In the theater, the guy at the end of my row guffaws, presumably at the comical worshipful solemnity of it all. Yet here we are, me and this guy, nearly alone at a 10:35 a.m. showing of a movie about Bruce Springsteen on the day it opens. He gets it. We get it. You get it. Presumably.
Blinded by the Light is a lightly dramatic and slightly musical-theaterish comedy about, and by, and explicitly for people who idolize the working-class hero known, paradoxically, as The Boss. Directed by Gurinder Chadha—entering her fourth decade in the industry and best known, at least stateside, for 2002’s Bend It Like Beckham—it stars Viveik Kalra as Javed Khan, a sullen 16-year-old of Pakistani descent. Javed wants a girlfriend, and to be a poet, and to secure a ticket out of the Southeast England nowheresville of Luton, the sort of darkness-edged town that rips the bones from your back. His father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), a stern laid-off factory worker who ties to keep his family afloat and insists that “writing is for rich people,” disapproves. And as anyone who has read Springsteen’s 510-page autobiography can tell you, there is no storytelling force more powerful than a Disapproving Father.
One stormy night a distraught Javed takes all his handwritten poems and dumps them in the trash, only for the wind to swell and scatter the pages like so many crumpled but beautiful birds. It is this fraught moment when Javed decides to pop in Born in the U.S.A. and listen to his first Springsteen tune, “Dancing in the Dark,” and suddenly he is having a very intense and explicitly religious experience. Snatches of lyrics appear right onscreen: Nothing but tired. Messages getting clearer. Change clothes hair face. Hey baby. Starving. Action. Help.
He switches to Darkness and cranks up “The Promised Land”: Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart. As he cavorts in the storm, we flash back to everything Javed’s experienced in, uh, the first half-hour of the movie: The National Front racist who spits in his face, his father taking all the money from the part-time job Javed’s been working, etc. Javed presses his hands to his headphones to keep it all in. He is rapturous; he is converted. He will spend the rest of the movie speaking to almost everyone—his friends, his family, his supportive English teacher Miss Clay (Hayley Atwell), his girlfriend Eliza (Nell Williams)—exclusively in Springsteen lyrics, while wearing ’80s Springsteen garb (jean jacket + bandanna + sleeveless flannel), his bedroom festooned exclusively with Springsteen posters. “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive,” he spits at three racist jerks who harass him and his friend Roops (Aaron Phagura) in a restaurant, and the racist jerks are too stunned to even respond. Roops is the guy who gave him the cassettes, by the way. He gets it. You get it.
With a script cowritten by veteran journalist Sarfraz Manzoor (and based on his 2007 memoir Greetings From Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock ’n’ Roll), there is a mild self-awareness to Blinded by the Light, an occasional nod to the objective maximum-Bruce absurdity of it all. Javed announces his attraction to Eliza by serenading her with “Thunder Road” and makes her listen to “Prove It All Night” (!!) on their first date, Shins-style; “Everyone’s out, so it’s just you and me,” he purrs later as they get to smooching on his living-room couch—to which she replies, “And Bruce.” Midway through the film there is a dreamlike, full-movie-musical dance sequence to “Born to Run,” which you will not be hearing for the last time; the most dramatic scene, in which Javed ditches his sister’s wedding to get Springsteen concert tickets while his father is bloodied up during a National Front march, is set to “Jungleland,” mostly the sax solo.
So, listen. If you’re watching or even reading about this movie, you know all about the distinct and fearsome adulation Springsteen, and Springsteen alone, inspires, the sense that he’s speaking to everyone everywhere but also, very specifically, to you in whatever death-trap and suicide-rap town you’re trapped in. What I’m saying is we were all there at the Springsteen show at Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio, on December 16, 2002, when that radiant first chorus of “Candy’s Room” hit and God was, for a brief and ecstatic moment, visible.
Bruceology is both a universal and painfully, embarrassingly personal experience, and it’s true that the exact sort of person apt to engage in rock-star worship as a teenager usually grows up to be the type of (!!!) 30-something cynic apt to sneer at a movie that depicts such teenage worship. But Blinded by the Light channels Springsteen’s essence more assuredly than, say, June’s wayward fantasy-rom-com Yesterday did the Beatles. It is blunter, and dorkier, but also truer. The knock on Yesterday was that it hammered at all the Fab Four clichés but struggled to capture precisely what makes the Beatles so beloved and enduring, whereas this movie is entirely devoted to capturing what makes Springsteen so beloved and enduring, and willing to risk looking uncool to get there. It’s not trying to convert you, but it does a fine job of depicting the unembarrassed fervor of the converted.
This movie isn’t trying to surprise you, either. The pace gets a little laggy: Javed and Roops take a reverent trip to Bruce’s New Jersey but don’t quite seem to grasp that he was as excited to get out of there as they were to get out of Luton and go there. You may grow impatient, meanwhile, for the Inevitable Big Fight With Dad and the Equally Inevitable Tearful Reconciliation With Dad. (The Bruce Springsteen universe doesn’t have much use for spoiler alerts.) Suffice it to say that the nicest thing that a girl can do for her boyfriend is quote “Hungry Heart” back to him, and the nicest thing that a son can say, about anyone, is, “I think Bruce Springsteen would understand my dad.” It’s a tear-jerking moment, a little simplistic but refreshingly direct, not at all unexpected but earned all the same. If you know, if you know.