In 1987, during the austere days of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, a teenager learns to live life, understand his family, and find his own voice through the music of Bruce Springsteen.
In 1980’s Britain, teenaged Javed Khan lives in Luton with his family, all refugees from Pakistan. In a time where their people endure scrutiny and racism, as well as his father Malik’s inability to understand him, Javed finds solace in the music of Bruce Springsteen after another Pakistani classmate, Roops, introduces him to his music. Javed becomes inspired to continue writing poems and to put himself out there like he never had before.
Javed begins dating a fellow student, Eliza, and their teacher, Ms. Clay, becomes impressed with Javed’s poems and helps get his foot in the door with finding work experience. However, Malik disapproves of Javed listening to Springsteen, and it comes to a head when the racist group National Front goes on a march on the day of Javed’s sister’s wedding. He is not there when his father is attacked, since he was off getting tickets to see Bruce in concert. Malik rips Javed’s tickets, which causes Javed to wish he wasn’t part of his family.
Ms. Clay submits one of Javed’s poems for a contest in which he is selected to attend a conference at Monmouth College, not far from Asbury Park where Bruce grew up. Although reluctant at first, Javed goes to the States with Roops, against Malik’s wishes. When Javed returns home, Eliza convinces his family to watch him read a paper he wrote, in which he found that one Springsteen song, “Blinded By The Light”, resonated greatly with him as it reminded him of his father. This touches Malik, and he reconciles with his son.
Javed goes off to the university of his choice as he wanted, but he drives with his father, and they listen to The Boss together.
In 1980, young Javed Khan (Ronak Singh Chadha Berges) is with his best friend Matt (Billy Barratt), who just got a new bike. Javed writes in his journal about how the Russians have been occupying Pakistan, which forced his family to relocate to Britain. He and Matt have dreams of going to London together when they are older. The boys then ride the bike together.
Seven years later, Javed (now played by Viviek Chadra) lives in Luton with his parents Malik (Kuvinder Ghir) and Noor (Meera Ganatra), and sisters Yasmeen (Tara Divina) and Shazia (Nikita Mehta). Javed has an interest in contemporary rock music, which Malik does not approve of. He rides his bike to see Matt (now played by Dean-Charles Chapman), who is returning from a trip to Ibiza with his new girlfriend Emma (Kit Reeve). After Matt gives him a gift, Malik comes nearby and reacts with disgust at Matt and Emma making out. Javed goes back home to receive birthday gifts from his family. He secretly wishes to escape his town, make a lot of money, and kiss a girl.
Javed writes lyrics for Matt’s band, as well as his own poems on the side. Matt critiques Javed’s work for being depressing. Javed expresses his desire to go to Manchester University so that he can leave Luton.
Javed begins his first day at a new school. Malik embarrasses him in front of the other students by loudly ordering him to stay away from girls, as well as to find a Jewish friend to be successful. Javed feels out of place, as he is one of only two Pakistani students attending the school. He bumps into the other student, Roops (Aaron Phagura), who says he is listening to “The Boss”. Javed then goes to Ms. Clay’s (Hayley Atwell) class where he develops a crush on an activist student named Eliza (Nell Williams). Ms. Clay wants to teach her students how to develop their writing skills, which is something that Javed takes interest in. He talks to her after class about the poetry and diaries he has written.
During lunch, Javed sits alone since he doesn’t know anyone. Roops approaches him and gives him two Bruce Springsteen cassettes, as he calls Bruce “the key to all that is true in this shitty world.”
On his way back home from school, Javed passes a racist punk spray-painting “Pakis Out” on a wall before he spits on Javed. He then follows Javed until he runs up to Matt’s apartment door to be greeted by him and Emma. They invite him to a party to go to later, but when Javed brings it up at dinner, his father forbids him from going. Later, the family gathers with other Pakistani friends, but a group of young boys outside mock the family by peeing through their mail slot and calling them “Pakis”.
Javed wants to write for the school paper, but he is rejected since the head of the paper doesn’t care to read his work. When he gets home later, the family watches the news about General Motors laying off a large number of employees, including Malik. He comes home in frustration. This, along with the constant racist berating and Malik’s inability to understand his son, takes a toll on Javed’s nerves, and he tells Shazia that they were born in the wrong time, place, and family. He even throws his poems out because he feels like giving up. When he goes back to his room, the Springsteen tapes fall out of his backpack. He decides to give them a listen, and he hears “Dancing in the Dark” for the first time. The lyrics immediately grab him, like something inside him has been awakened. He then listens to “The Promised Land” as he goes outside to recover his poems, and after hearing more of Bruce’s songs, Javed feels as though his life has just changed.
Javed goes to school and excitedly tells Roops that he listened to both tapes and feels as though Bruce knows exactly how he feels. He becomes inspired to continue writing, and he even brings his collection of poems to Ms. Clay for her to read. Naturally, Malik disapproves of Javed listening to The Boss. The family is then visited by a neighbor, Mr. Evans (David Hayman). He found one of Javed’s poems in which he speaks against the National Front, who are planning a march. As a former WWII soldier, Mr. Evans sympathizes with Javed’s feelings and tells him he wrote a brilliant poem. However, Javed’s parents are less appreciative.
Javed returns to the head of the school paper with a piece he wrote on Springsteen. He insists that it be read, so the head gives it a shot. Meanwhile, Malik becomes aggravated over the mounting bills he cannot pay, and he is even more stressed out since Yasmeen is set to be married, and he doesn’t think he can pay for the wedding. He has the rest of the family pool their money together to support each other. Javed goes around town looking for a job, while still listening to more Bruce.
Javed goes to a restaurant with Roops, when they are forced out of their seats by three racist punks. Javed realizes he left a tape on the table and goes to get it, but even as one of the punks refuses to give it back, Javed retaliates by proudly quoting “Badlands” with Roops, and they walk out of the restaurant the better men.
At a local flea market, Javed meets Matt and his father (Rob Brydon), who also shares Javed’s love for The Boss. Javed asks Matt’s dad for a job since he operates the place, and he says he can give him something but it wouldn’t pay a lot. He then sees Eliza there with her friends, and, with Matt’s dad’s help, Javed sings “Thunder Road”, which charms Eliza and the crowd. However, Matt’s dad starts to mock Matt for his lack of musical know-how, which deeply upsets him, especially since Javed doesn’t back him up. This causes a rift between the two friends.
Javed works up the nerve to ask Eliza out on a date. She picks the place to go, which is a rave spot. Javed doesn’t feel right about going in, so he nearly ditches the date until he listens to more Bruce. He sings “Prove It All Night” to let Eliza know he is staying, and the two share their first kiss. The next morning, he leaves a poem taped to Eliza’s window, which she loves.
During Ms. Clay’s class, she tells Javed that she loved his poems. She mentions having a friend at the Herald, and she can get Javed in to have unpaid work experience, which he is thankful for.
Javed and Roops want to join the school’s radio station to play non-stop Springsteen, but the station’s head denies them. The boys later sneak into the station after the head leaves, and they play “Born to Run” for all the school to hear, while locking the door to the station to prevent anyone from stopping it. The two then go out on the town with Eliza after school for a fun time out, which ends as they come across the town’s mosque which has a severed pig’s head hanging from it in another racist act of intimidation.
Eliza invites Javed over for dinner to meet her parents. They are not subtle about their thoughts on the pair, as they believe that Eliza always brings home boyfriends that might provoke them. Javed tries his best to hide his discomfort.
Javed and Roops are called in to the Headmistress’s office about the radio station prank, but after giving her an apology, they don’t get in any serious trouble for it. He later gets into an argument with Malik over working for the Herald without pay. As he walks home by himself, Javed sees Matt, who is still not talking to him. When he approaches him, Matt expresses his dismay for Javed not defending him in front of his dad when Matt has stuck up for Javed against racist pricks before. Javed notices that Mr. Evans overheard everything, and his advice to the boy is that “good friends deserve to be heard.” With this advice, Javed goes to apologize to Matt, and Matt is happy to learn that Javed now has a girlfriend.
Javed has Eliza over his house to make out, but they are seen by Shazia. She promises not to tell their parents on the condition that Javed does something that she wants to do. Javed agrees and later takes her to a dance hall with other British Pakistanis. There he finds out that she has been seeing a boy for 15 months, and has been able to keep it secret from their parents.
At the Herald, Javed is asked to cover a story about the mosque. He is paid for the article when it is published, but he keeps this information from his parents.
On the day of Yasmeen’s wedding, Javed learns that Springsteen is coming to Wembley, and it may be his one chance to see him live. He runs to buy tickets from Emma with the money he earned for the article. While the family is driving to the wedding, they are stopped by police as the National Front is making their march, calling for an all white Britain. Eliza and Ms. Clay are among the protesters there. Malik and a friend leave their car and are attacked by NF members. Javed rushes to the scene to find his father injured and on the ground. Later, Javed is chastised for not being there, and he admits that he was gone buying concert tickets with money from work. Malik is angry that Javed had his own money that he didn’t give to the family, and he rips the tickets. Javed angrily tells Malik he doesn’t want to be his son, and that he wants more out of his life. The words stun Malik and Noor.
At school, Eliza cannot believe that Javed abandoned his family for concert tickets. He says they shouldn’t be together because of them, and she berates him for using his family as an excuse. In class, Ms. Clay tells Javed that she submitted his Bruce Springsteen essay for a contest, and he was selected to attend a lecture at Monmouth College in New Jersey. Ms. Clay also notes that he would be close to Asbury Park where Springsteen grew up. Javed knows his father would not let him go, so he turns it down. However, he changes his mind and tells Malik that he plans on going. Malik tells Javed that if he leaves, he will not be allowed to return. Javed packs his bags.
Javed and Roops take the trip to the States to visit Jersey and Asbury Park. It inspires Javed to write something new. Back home, Noor tells Malik that he needs to fix things with his son, and reminds him that he left his own family and country at a young age as well.
Javed is picked to read his winning paper to the school. Eliza talks to Noor and gets Javed’s whole family to show up in support. Javed sees his family and stops reading from the paper, as his feelings have changed since he wrote it. He talks about how he heard “Blinded By The Light” and was reminded of his father, and how he thinks Springsteen would understand how Malik felt about his anger toward his own dreams not going out as planned to provide for his family. Everyone is moved, and they applaud Javed. He reconciles with Eliza and thanks her for inviting his family. Malik then talks to Javed and tells him that he has listened to Springsteen, and he admires his lyrics about being a good person and respecting your family.
Javed is set to go off to his university. He bids Matt farewell and receives a demo CD with lyrics that Javed wrote. After saying goodbye to Noor and Shazia, Javed prepares to drive off with Malik. Pakistani music begins playing when he turns on the radio, but Malik changes it so that they listen to “Born to Run” together. As they drive out of town, Javed sees his younger self waving to him.
We then see pictures of the real Javed Khan, who has seen The Boss in concert over 150 times. He is also still great friends with Roops (also pictured) to this day.