Great rock music can bring you into a new relationship with yourself. It can make you feel freer, on top of the world. The thin but genial “Blinded by the Light,” set in 1987, is about just such a connection: Javed (engaging newcomer Viveik Kalra), a 16-year-old Pakistani immigrant, lives with his family in a lower-middle-class apartment complex north of London. An amiable dreamer, he scribbles poetry and song lyrics until – Wham! – he discovers the music of Bruce Springsteen. In wonderment he exclaims, “Bruce knows everything I’ve ever felt!”
This is the second movie this season about how the sons of Asian immigrants in rural England are utterly transformed by Western rock ’n’ roll. “Yesterday,” which recently opened, botched a marvelous premise: Through a cosmic accident, a middling folk singer of South Asian descent is reawakened to a world where the Beatles never existed. To clamorous acclaim, he reproduces their hits as if they were his own. “Blinded by the Light,” directed and co-written by Gurinder Chadha (“Bend It Like Beckham”), who was raised in London with an East African Indian background, does somewhat better. Despite its predictability, it conveys what it’s like to be enraptured by a rock idol. (The film’s loosely adapted source material is co-screenwriter Sarfraz Manzoor’s 2007 memoir “Greetings From Bury Park.”)
Western rock music, not the indigenous sounds their parents cling to, provides these young men with a ready-made outlaw lifestyle they imagine will liberate them from the confinements of their immigrant upbringing. (The same could be said for the Parsi Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody.”) Both of these movies, especially “Blinded by the Light,” are about embracing Western music as a way of transcending racial barriers. This embrace, this cultural appropriation, is valued. We hear very little of the family musical traditions these guys are breaking away from. Javed longs to be Springsteen – right down to the ripped plaid shirts and denim and red bandanna around his neck – because the music facilitates his escape from the poverty and racism in his neighborhood, with thugs spray-painting swastikas on walls and few prospects beyond becoming a factory worker like his disapproving, old-world father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir).
The paradox for Javed is that Springsteen’s music – which is amply represented on the soundtrack and underscores some jubilant Bollywood style musical numbers – makes him feel both more disconnected from his surroundings and more authentic to himself. And yet we don’t hear much of Javed’s poetry or song lyrics, so it’s not apparent, once you clear away the Springsteen idolatry, what paths his own artistry might take.
Movies about the intergenerational divide have been around forever, but “Blinded by the Light” joins “The Big Sick” and, to a lesser extent, “The Farewell” and the soapy “Crazy Rich Asians” in situating that divide in an East-West context. The cliches may be the same but the characterizations are more multiracial now. When Javed wails that “my family is stuck in another country,” it’s a time-honored teenage lament except, in his case, it’s almost literally true.
Malik, who has Javed’s life mapped out for him, right down to eventually picking out his wife, can’t comprehend his son’s intransigence. And conversely, the parents of Javed’s jaunty, white political activist girlfriend – played by Nell Williams – are broadly portrayed as Thatcher-era snoots.
It’s no wonder Javed feels at one with The Boss when he sings “Man, I ain’t getting nowhere. I’m just living in a dump like this.” What the film doesn’t have the wit to recognize is that Springsteen, by his own admission in his autobiography, is something of a poseur, too. Mr. Born to Run, who never worked in a factory, still resides in New Jersey near where he grew up.
In a way, this funny fact lays out another lesson that Javed could have taken to heart. When, at last, he and his father reconcile, what the film is finally saying is wherever you end up, don’t run from your heritage.