Blinded by the Light photo

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows a scene from “Blinded By the Light,” a film by Gurinder Chadha. (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

I bought my vinyl copy of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” at Dixie Caverns, a Virginia based campground/gem shop/gas station/Confederate memorabilia shop/antique mall/cave. I was 15. I didn’t even own a record player. It was enough to just stare at it, to hold it and trace the outlines of Springsteen and saxophonist Clarence Clemons with my finger.

A lot of Americans have stories like that. Springsteen, his music, his image, his philosophy, have seeped into popular American culture so deeply the two are almost one. Sometimes you wonder whether they even called it the American Flag before he put it on the “Born in the U.S.A.” cover.

Springsteen’s American-ness is part of what makes “Blinded by the Light” so impactful. Because this is not a movie about Springsteen in America. It’s not about teenage white kids sitting in the back seat of their parent’s suburban desperately wishing to find their own “Rosalita.”

Instead, “Blinded by the Light” follows Javed (Viveik Kalra), a Pakistani British teenager stuck in Luton, a dull London suburb. It’s 1987, the peak of Margaret Thatcher’s iron grip on the British job market. Javed yearns to be a writer, but looming poverty forces him to support his family, as his unemployed father looking on disapprovingly. “Writing is for English people with rich parents,” the father tells the son, one of the film’s many great lines, as funny as it is blistering. Instead, Javed writes poetry in secret, dreaming of the day when he can leave Luton, a town he dubs a “four letter word.”

That’s until, almost by accident, Javed hears Bruce Springsteen. “It’s like Bruce knows everything I’ve ever felt.” He tells a friend. “Everything I’ve ever wanted.”

It’s an idea I’ve never seen fully articulated in a film before. “Blinded by the Light” searches for the singularity that occurs with your first serious brush with art not foisted upon you by your parents. It’s a love story about falling in love with ideas and art.

The love is brought to stunningly life by the team behind the camera. Working on a script she wrote with Sarfaz Manzoor (whose life the story is based on) and Paul Mayeda Berges, this is director Gurinder Chadha at her most voyeuristic. An Indian-British veteran with past successes like “Bend It Like Beckham,” this should hopefully be enough for her to shift her fame in Britain to something more worldwide. Right now, we need voices like hers more than ever.

The whole cast are winners. Welsh comedic giant Rob Brydon shows up to steal a couple scenes and depart, not even sticking around long enough to get a character name. The dependably fantastic Hayley Atwell is, well, dependable fantastic. Nell Williams plays Javed’s love interest just brimming with sass and sunshine. And Kalra is a pure revelation, one of the great debuts of the year. He’s a name to remember. 

Those who have little tolerance for The Boss and his lengthy musical sermons, fear not. “Blinded by the Light” isn’t as much about Bruce Springsteen as it is about what Bruce Springsteen’s songs are about. Which is to say, love, unbridled joy, and pure, unadulterated emotional expression. Like the best rock songs, it’s a movie worth getting drunk, worthy of being stuck in your head and played endlessly.

“Blinded by the Light” is more joyous than anything you’ll see this year. It succeeds as a complete work by showing the opposite. Luton has a darkness at the edge of it, creeping ever closer to the heart of the town. Scenes of skinheads and Nazis goose-stepping through main street is as much a period specific detail as it is an image of our present, an aura echoing through time. It’s not that hard to imagine these men marching through our neighborhoods, perhaps waving a Confederate Flag they bought at Dixie Caverns.

Luton is a factory town without a factory, a place struggling to make a case for it’s own existence without economic drive. It’s a lot like Asbury Park, NJ, where Springsteen is from. It’s also a lot like Billings, MT, where I’m from.

A lot of people are from towns like Luton, or Asbury Park, or Billings. “Blinded by the Light” tells their story.

Before they went into production, Chadha, Berges, and Manzoor sent their script to Springsteen for his approval. He responded, “I’m good with this.”

So am I. As usual, leave it to Bruce Springsteen to say it best.

 

9.5 Summers wasted in vain praying for a savior to rise from these streets out of 10 Summers wasted in vain praying for a savior to rise from these streets