Corn … it’s pretty damn useful. Not only can we make a great number of delicious dishes with it, it’s also actively used in starches, sweeteners, industrial lubricants, diapers, biofuels, whiskey and glue. And guess what? We can even make movies with it. Such is the case with the featherlight drama “Blinded by the Light,” which is cornier than the state of Iowa. It’s like eating a piece of corn on the cob, slathered in corn syrup and dusted with 18 packets of Splenda, while listening to “Kandy Korn” by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band.
One man’s “corny” is another man’s “earnest.” That’s going to be the determining factor for how much or how little audiences enjoy the melodramatic afterschool special that is “Blinded by the Light.” It’s the second film this year that invokes the power of fantastic music to transcend boundaries and borders (after the Beatles-driven romantic comedy “Yesterday”).
Javed (Viveik Kalra) is the teenage son of a Pakistani immigrant, trying to make a better life for himself in the suburban armpit of Luten, England. It’s the mid-1980s, which means Margaret Thatcher’s Draconian nonsense, conservative nationalism taking hold, synth-heavy pop music and absolutely ridiculous fashion and hairstyles.
Javed’s life isn’t always easy. His future seems predetermined by a country and culture he’s never visited. He’s at an age where he’s trying to figure out who he wants to be and the entirety of his world is influenced by his family, including constant edicts laid down by his father (Kulvinder Ghir). His search for identity leads him to the unlikeliest of places: New Jersey (at least, metaphorical New Jersey). A fellow student introduces Javed to the music of Bruce Springsteen and his world view is changed forever.
Something about The Boss speaks to Javed. Springsteen’s lyrics seem as relevant to his situation as they would to anyone drifting through life without purpose. Javed takes this inspiration and applies it to his own life, by sharing his poetry with a like-minded teacher (Hayley Atwell) and finding the nerve to talk to a whip-smart classmate (Nell Williams). Even still, he has a few hurdles to overcome, including overt racism from a ruling class uncomfortable with an influx of immigration. Oh! How times have changed!
There is something endearing about “Blinded by the Light.” The idea of someone obsessing over an artist as a means of transporting away from their grim reality is beautifully timeless. Likewise, the idea of Bruce Springsteen’s music as a universal conduit for youthful frustration is kind of heartwarming. Writer/director Gurinder Chadha (“Bend It Like Beckham”) uses the wonderful music of Springsteen and 1980’s pop to maximum effect. With so many great songs to score Javed’s angsty, frustrated stares into the distance, it’s not difficult to connect with him. The Boss’ tunes end up doing a lot of the emotional heavy lifting.
The supporting cast is brimming with likable, two-dimensional stereotypes. There’s the crusty but surprisingly encouraging World War II veteran; the like-minded immigrant friend who helps Javed discover Springsteen’s music; and the aspiring musician neighbor who dresses like an extra from a Duran Duran video. It’s a nice, light, frothy cast to balance the more dour family drama that drives much of the movie. Everyone does a fine job; though, much of the material is as emotionally complex as a sonnet written by a 5-year-old.
A few scenes veer into cringe-inducing corn—the foundation of constant eye rolls. Still, there are nice characters, nice moments and nice music that help the predictable, tidy narrative feel slightly better than average.
A less cynical person might find “Blinded by the Light” to be a downright heartwarming experience and leave the theater with a smile. He might even find himself downloading a lot of Bruce Springsteen music in the days after. All things being equal, that’s not a terrible outcome for a cinematic experience.