Sarfraz Manzoor hated growing up as the son of Pakistani immigrants in Britain in the 1980s, but instead of seeking out The Clash or any of the other great British bands that were kicking against Mrs. Thatcher’s government, he found the music of Bruce Springsteen. The Boss’ songs expressed all his frustration with the smallness of his surroundings in the city of Luton and the community that pressured him to give up on his dreams. He wrote about this in his memoir Greetings from Bury Park, whose title cheekily referenced the actual name of the place where Manzoor grew up. I was worried that the film adaptation, entitled Blinded by the Light, would play like a fan letter writ large, and, yeah, sometimes it does. Even so, its portrait of a bygone era shows it isn’t really bygone.
Manzoor’s fictional alter ego is Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra), a 16-year-old in 1987 who tells his strict Muslim dad (Kulvinder Ghir) that he’s studying economics when he’s actually aiming for a university’s literature program. The father only tightens his grip after he’s laid off from his factory job and can’t find another one, like millions of others under Thatcher’s austerity measures. In the middle of this, the one other brown-skinned kid at Javed’s school (Aaron Phagura) lends him cassette tapes of Born in the U.S.A. and Darkness on the Edge of Town, and it blows Javed’s mind. He starts writing poems, essays, and song lyrics at a furious clip, and he pounds on the door of the school newspaper until they’re forced to read his stuff, but he can’t tell his parents about any of it.
When Javed first hears “The River” and walks out into a ferocious windstorm, it’s a teensy bit much, but the film has bigger problems, specifically with pacing over the course of its 117 minutes. The various subplots play out in largely predictable fashion, and director/co-writer Gurinder Chadha seems to have problems deciding whether this film is supposed to be a musical or not. When Javed and his friends burst into “Hungry Heart” and “Thunder Road,” they’re merely singing along to the Springsteen recordings instead of on their own, and half-measures don’t tend to work so well in a musical.
Then again, one of those musical numbers ends abruptly when Javed finds a pig’s head has been placed at the local mosque. As with her previous hit, Bend It Like Beckham, Chadha’s strength is that she knows this South Asian-British milieu that she’s working in, and she depicts a time when the racists don’t bother with subtlety, as the National Front holds white-power marches through town. Right now, when Western societies have reverted to violence to push out anyone with dark-colored skin, this feel-good drama filled with bounding energy is also a stark reminder of the hope that the America of Bruce Springsteen’s music used to offer to the world. Maybe this bright-eyed Muslim kid, who goes so movingly off script as he reads his prize-winning essay in the climactic scene of Blinded by the Light, can inspire some of us to let America be that America again.
Starring Viveik Kalra. Directed by Gurinder Chadha. Written by Sarfraz Manzoor, Paul Mayeda Berges, and Gurinder Chadha, based on Manzoor’s memoir. Rated PG-13.