Peter Howell: Blinded by the Light has enough true grit for this tale of Springsteen worship to stick

Peter Howell: Blinded by the Light has enough true grit for this tale of Springsteen worship to stick
Starring Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura, Meera Ganatra, Rob Brydon and Hayley Atwell. Written by Gurinder Chadha, Sarfraz Manzoor and Paul Mayeda Berges. Directed by Gurinder Chadha. Opens Friday at theatres everywhere. 118 minutes. PG

The thundering roads of Bruce Springsteen’s New Jersey lead to the mean streets of Margaret Thatcher’s England in Blinded by the Light, a comedy that finds life inspiration from an unexpected source.

The early going in this scrappy charmer from director/co-writer Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) makes it seem like a fantasy akin to the recent Yesterday, with a focus on the empowering music of “the Boss” rather than the Beatles.

Could it be really be that British Pakistani teen Javed (Viveik Kalra) and his pal Roops (Aaron Phagura) are the only two people in their neighbourhood who like Springsteen, much less even know who he is? The deejay at their high school radio station think the kids would rather bop to pop diva Debbie Gibson.

The general cluelessness is puzzling, given Springsteen’s global popularity and the fact that Javed and Roops live in Luton, a factory town northwest of London.

It’s a place that in the 1987 of Thatcher’s austere England, where the story unfolds, the jobs are scarce and getting scarcer, just like on Springsteen’s New Jersey home turf. They could identify with the rebel lament of “Born to Run”: “It’s a town full of losers, I’m pullin’ out of here to win.”

No worries, though, because meek Javed, an aspiring writer, is out to spread the Springsteen gospel. He’s highly motivated by the plaintive poet of burned-out Chevys and endless highways, whose tunes leap from Javed’s cassette player and dance across the screen.

Javed needs that level of enthusiasm, because he’s dealing with an old-school dad (Kulvinder Ghir), newly laid off from his job at the Vauxhall factory, who thinks Springsteen’s a bad influence and poetry is for sissies.

There’s also a girl (Nell Williams) whom Javed is sweet on, but he needs to declare his love, even if he has to use Springsteen’s words to do so.

The concept can be cringingly twee at times — there’s a Bollywood-style song and dance to “Thunder Road” — but Chadha and co-writers Sarfraz Manzoor (whose journalistic memoirs form the basis of the tale) and Paul Mayeda Berges include enough true-life grit to make the story stick.

Scenes of racist acts against Javed and his family, and a white supremacy march by members of the National Front (set to Springsteen’s “Jungleland”) bring the narrative down to earth.

Newcomer Kalra makes for an engaging protagonist, as believable in his life angst as he is in his Boss worship. Pity he can’t really hold a tune, even those as rough-hewn as Springsteen’s.

But he has a ringer to help him out in that Bollywood take on “Thunder Road” — none other than comic Rob Brydon, whose enthusiasm for Bruuuce seems born to run with genuine affection, just like the movie.
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