One of the running themes of “Blinded by the Light” is how Bruce Springsteen was considered irrelevant by British teens in 1987 — but the lengthy standing ovation for the film at Sundance on Sunday evening and the $15 million sale that followed in short order on Monday morning made it clear that Sundance has a new Boss this year.
And “Blinded by the Light” is pulling out of here to win, to quote a certain Jersey boy.
Adapted from the terrific Sarfraz Manzoor memoir “Greetings From Bury Park” and directed by Gurinder Chadha with the same humanistic zest she brought to “Bend It Like Beckham,” “Blinded by the Light” is corny, silly, as overblown as one of Springsteen’s grandest anthems and damn near irresistible.
You might shake your head at characters breaking into full-throated versions of “The Promised Land,” “Thunder Road” and especially “Born to Run,” but if you don’t surrender to this grand lunacy, you don’t have a heart. And even if you aren’t a Springsteen devotee, you’ll likely be moved by a story that’s less about Bruce than it is about the way pop music can reverberate in our lives and fuel our dreams.
Viveik Kalra plays Javed, a shy, aspiring writer living in the English town of Luton in the Margaret Thatcher era. His parents moved to England from Pakistan, and the family is wildly unwelcome in a time that saw the rise of the anti-immigrant National Front. What’s even worse for Javed is that his father expects him to be a good Pakistani boy, when he wants to write and do impractical things and maybe even kiss a girl.
It’s the era of the Pet Shop Boys and Cutting Crew and Wham, but a chance encounter at his high school leaves Javed with cassette tapes of “Born in the U.S.A.” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” and one night he listens to them and his world changes.
The film is smart enough to know that “Dancing in the Dark” may have been a big pop hit with a dance beat, but it was also a song about sheer desperation – so Javed listens, the words spill off the cassette and onto the screen around him, and then he goes outside, listens to “The Promised Land” in a raging windstorm and finds the words he wants to live by: “Mister I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man/And I believe in the promised land.”
The scene, by the way, is completely over the top – but like the work of director John Carney in indie musicals like “Once” and “Sing Street,” it is gloriously, vibrantly alive, a celebration of how potent it can be when the right piece of music hits the right set of ears.
And so we buy it – hell, we love it – when Javed begins speaking in Springsteen lyrics, when “Thunder Road” turns into a flea-market serenade, when “Born to Run” sweeps first the high school, then the whole town off its feet. Javed is drawn to Springsteen because of his lyrics, but the music helps the film achieves true, joyous, unironic rock ‘n’ roll liftoff in these moments.
Chadha is smart in the way she uses the music and chooses which versions of the songs to employ to maximum effect; an acoustic version of “The Promised Land” brilliantly captures the mood of one sequence, and while you might not notice when “Thunder Road” switches from the studio version to a live rendition from 1975, you’ll feel the difference.
In the end, though, Springsteen fades into the background as much as he can in a movie that uses 17 of his songs and is named after one of them. “Blinded by the Light” is really an affecting family story, a coming-of-age story against a background of tradition, and most of all a father-son story in the mold of, well, the father-son stories told in a whole lot of Bruce Springsteen songs.
Is this small, charming film worth $15 million, the biggest deal at this year’s Sundance? Don’t ask me – I’m a guy who wrote a story for the Washington Post titled “Confessions of a Springsteen Fanatic” a couple of years before Sarfraz Manzoor or his character ever got excited about Bruce.
So I’ll admit a little bias here, but that’s not going to stop me from embracing “Blinded by the Light” as a joyous, moving tribute to the way pop songs can detonate in our lives.