The new comedic drama “Blinded by the Light” feels designed to be heartwarming, and does a depressingly good job of defining by example that innocuous quality. The movie tells a classic tale of immigrants seeking economic opportunity for their children, who, in turn, pursue precarious careers in the arts and make personal choices that conflict with family traditions. But fear not: nothing is irreconcilable, since all is bathed in the universal solvent of pop culture, specifically, American pop culture, embodied by the music and the persona of Bruce Springsteen.
“Blinded by the Light” is set in the U.K., mostly in the academic year 1987-88, mostly in the industrial town of Luton, where Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra), a sixteen-year-old high-school student whose parents emigrated decades earlier from Pakistan, is an aspiring writer. Since childhood, Javed has been filling notebooks with diary entries and sheets of looseleaf paper with poems—which also include lyrics for his best friend, Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman), a neighbor and an aspiring rocker, who’s white. Javed’s father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), works in a nearby Vauxhall car factory; his mother, Noor (Meera Ganatra), takes in sewing. Malik is the unchallenged head of the family whose word is law (though Noor’s behind-the-scenes influence on him is exerted quietly but decisively at critical moments), yet Javed secretly defies him from the start, studying English at school rather than an economics course that his father mandates.
Javed is both oppressed by his father’s rigid rules and cowed by the aggressions of local neo-Nazi youths, who chase him home, spit on him, and menace him and other people of color, daubing houses with slurs and swastikas. “Blinded by the Light” offers sharply crafted details of the Khan family’s life in England, depicting many forms and displays of hostility and casual insult that the Pakistanis face—including a National Front riot against a local mosque, white children peeing through a Pakistani family’s mail slot, a pig’s head stuck on a minaret, and a middle-aged man offering Javed a glass of wine (“I won’t tell if you won’t,” he says). It depicts the Pakistani community’s warm bonds, as in the mutual assistance provided at the mosque, and the joy and charm of a wedding ceremony, while also suggesting, glancingly, the oppressiveness of some of those customs, such as arranged marriages. The patriarchal control exerted by Malik on Javed falls even more firmly on Javed’s younger sister, Shazia (Nikita Mehta), who struggles for a margin of freedom while avoiding any overt challenges to her father’s authority. Above all, the movie sketches the politics of the time lightly but starkly—in particular, the devastating effects of Thatcher-era policies, such as high unemployment, which, when it affects Javed’s father, shakes his foothold of confidence in the future and puts increasing pressure on Javed to bear some of the family’s financial weight.
Yet what’s heartwarming about “Blinded by the Light” is its pursuit of easy unanimity, which it achieves by borrowing plot elements that have the ring of authenticity and then sweetening and contrivedly assembling them so as to denature them. Javed’s life is changed one day at school, when a classmate named Roops (Aaron Phagura), who’s Sikh, approaches him and, in an encouragingly friendly gesture, offers him cassettes of two albums of his musical hero: “the Boss.” Javed is puzzled. Roops clears up the mystery: “The Boss of us all.” When Javed listens to Bruce Springsteen, the lyrics swirl around him on screen and he is transformed. What’s odd about the way that the movie handles Javed’s awakening is that its result is a monomaniacal fixation on Springsteen. Javed’s discovery of the Boss’s music doesn’t unlock the door to music for him, or to rock music, or to personal poetic rock at large, the way that a discovery of Beethoven might open up a world of classical music, or a discovery of François Truffaut might spark the discovery of cinema, or that of Virginia Woolf might ignite the discovery of novels. Rather, the movie looks benignly, even beatifically, at Javed’s cult of personality, as he fills his room with Springsteen posters, imitates Springsteen’s way of dressing, and seemingly listens to nothing but Springsteen’s albums. Far from sparking Javed’s curiosity, Springsteen sparks his incuriosity.
At the same time that Javed has his sensibilities awakened by Springsteen, he has the benefit of receiving attention from a devoted and understanding teacher, Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell), who discerns his nascent literary ambition, asks to read his poems, and pushes him in the direction of writing personal essays, recognizing his talent. Emboldened both by Ms. Clay’s practical enthusiasm and by Springsteen’s words, Javed writes an essay about Springsteen for the school paper (after contending with the racism and the snootiness of its editor); then Ms. Clay helps him get an internship at a local newspaper and submits his writing to a literary competition. Along the way, he manages to chat up a classmate named Eliza (Nell Williams), a young political activist whose parents are genteel-racist Tories, and the two begin an innocent romance. (He also gets crucial validation from a crusty old neighbor, a tight-lipped Second World War veteran who literally gets wind of one of Javed’s poems—on a sheet of paper that’s carried to his door by a gale.)
The movie, written by Gurinder Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges, doesn’t have much to do with musical enthusiasm in itself, but it does find dramatic ways of positioning Springsteen—and Javed’s Springsteen fever—within the world of music: namely, down the middle, between the glam rock of Matt’s aspirations and the proto-poptimism of school-d.j. rock intellectuals. Springsteen’s music isn’t Javed’s gateway to the Sex Pistols, Patti Smith, or Public Enemy; Springsteen, here, represents a rock musician who doesn’t scandalize or defy the elders of the previous generation but embraces them. The longing for belonging that drives Javed is represented by Springsteen’s preëminence, his centrality, his respectability. The most important symbolic aspect of Springsteen in the film is his success. Though Springsteen may sing about working-class struggles, family conflicts, the challenge of maturing, the weight of moral responsibility, and the drive for freedom, above all, in Javed’s eyes, the Boss has succeeded, has risen from his obscure background and straitened circumstances to become rich and famous, to do his family proud. Similarly, it’s no spoiler to say that the strait-laced young man rises quickly and prodigiously to prove to his parents that a career in writing can be quite as respectable—and as lucrative, if not more so—than the path that they’ve set out for him in business or law. It’s a dream of inclusion that feels narrow, a vision of liberation that feels constrained, a view of progress that feels like a lockstep into the future. The universal solvent turns out to be not culture but celebrity and money.