Causing a sizable splash at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the latest work from filmmaker Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham, Bride and Prejudice, Viceroy’s House) is not a film about Bruce Springsteen, but it is certainly (as the credits indicate) “inspired by the words and music of Bruce Springsteen.” In broader strokes, Blinded by the Light is a movie about how we listen to and absorb music—in particular the music that changes our lives—and the ways in which we connect with certain artists to such a degree that we feel like we share the same blood. I can’t recall another film about music that considers these moments in our artistic upbringing in such a genuinely earnest and deeply celebratory manner, but by the time the closing credits roll, you’ll not only see the connective tissue between a 16-year-old British-Pakistani boy living in the worst city in Great Britain circa 1987 and a nearly-40-year-old New Jersey singer-songwriter, but you’ll also revel in it.
The period in British history is key to understanding Javed (Viveik Kalra), who endures a great deal of prejudice and outright racism during the Thatcher administration, one that practically encouraged (by not vocally discouraging) the rise of both Nazi skinhead culture and a more casual brand of racism that made neighbor distrust neighbor and classmates look sideways at this first-generation immigrant’s son. The era also dictates what music Javed is listening to when the film opens, which is a lot of keyboard-heavy pop—be prepared to hear selections from Scritti Politti, a-ha, and Pet Shop Boys. His best friend Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) is in a band that plays such music, and Javed is even helping out with lyrics, with not much success since he’s attempting to write love songs having never been in love himself.
Javed and his parents (Kulvinder Ghir and Meera Ganatra) live in a town called Luton, and while the boy has his heart set on being some kind of writer—he dabbles in poetry, lyrics and journaling—his overbearing father is insistent on him pursuing a career that is more lucrative and actively destroys any dreams Javed has that pertain to writing. One of his teachers, Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell), provides a great deal of guidance on the writing front, but until Javed has lived more of a life, no amount of encouragement is going to make him a better writer.
Then one day, everything changes when the only other Pakistani kid in the school, a Sikh boy named Roops (Aaron Phagura), loans him a couple of Springsteen albums (on tape, naturally) to broaden his musical horizons. What it does instead is transform and inspire Javed. Director Chadha scrolls through lyrics on screen from some of the first songs that Javed listens to—not the entire lyrical content, but just the words that stand out to this boy whose life seems stuck, whose father is crushing his dreams, and whose world is being dominated by people who don’t want him living there. Although it may seem like an odd choice, “Dancing in the Dark” is the song that breaks through initially, with its message of being rendered immobile by the pressures of the world surrounding the singer.
I ain’t nothing but tired
Man, I’m just tired and bored with myself
Hey there baby, I could use just a little help
How could Javed not see himself in these sentiments? Key words and phrases from the song flash onto the screen, and the energy of both the music and Javed’s wonder at someone putting his feelings into lyrics splash across the screen.
Man, I ain’t getting nowhere
I’m just living in a dump like this
There’s something happening somewhere
Baby, I just know that there is
You can almost see Javed’s heart ready to burst out of his chest as these words literally bounce around his head. It’s an absolute visual thrill to see the way we hear a song for the first time captured on film. We typically don’t have the lyrics in front of us, so we only hear certain words as they bleed through, and if something about that initial listen rings so true that we’re rendered speechless, then we’ll likely listen again to see if the songwriter has something to contribute to our lives. (Personally, it made me remember hearing “Thunder Road” for the first time and thinking that the line “Throwing roses in the rain” was the most romantic thing I’d ever heard; I still do.) Javed is so taken by Springsteen’s unintentional insight into his own world that he opens his mind up enough to let other songs inspire him and give him the motivation to stay strong in his determination to pursue writing.
Based on the life story of journalist/writer Sarfraz Manzoor (a credited co-screenwriter as well) and his memoir Greetings from Bury Park, Blinded by the Light is both a time capsule of the period and a scarily timely and relevant work that resonates almost too comfortably in today’s political climate. The film isn’t afraid to be an unapologetic crowd pleaser while also driving home its messages of music transcending the things that often divide us to highlight what makes us similar and perhaps even unites us.
At a certain point, the movie is simply wall-to-wall Springsteen music (Javed even begins speaking in quotes from various songs, which can be a little much on occasion). Sometimes the songs are used as further evidence of the parallel similarities between Javed and Springsteen’s lives (the relationship the two have with their respective fathers is a fairly evident one). Lyrics pop off the screen, and Javed shuffles down the hall with headphones and a confidence that only he understands, like when he has “The Promised Land” blaring in his ears. Other times, the screen turns into a full-bore musical number with people who can’t even logically hear the music singing and dancing along with Javed. A particularly memorable sequence involves “Thunder Road” (co-sung by Rob Brydon, playing Matt’s dad, who can’t stand his son’s synth-pop leanings), which beautifully shifts from the studio version to a live piano version for maximum dramatic impact.
Still other times, the songs serve as a proper soundtrack for some harder-hitting moments, including the use of “Jungleland” played during an anti-immigrant rally that turns violent, making for one of the film’s most memorable and unsettling moments. As a longtime Springsteen fan, it’s easy to get excited about a film that only uses music from Born to Run through Born in the U.S.A. (plus the film’s title track, from Springsteen’s first album), because in all likelihood, this is the period that first turned you on to Springsteen as well. But that doesn’t lessen the thrill of watching this young man go through the process of becoming obsessive about a musician, and decide to confront his father about his life choices because he wants to see his favorite singer play for the first time (on the Tunnel of Love tour, of course). During the course of the film, not surprisingly, Javed does meet a nice young lady (Nell Williams as Eliza), whose activism seems to line up nicely with Bruce’s politics, and this relationship, in turn, enriches Javed to the point where he writes more informed lyrics for Matt’s band.
If there is any criticism to place on the film, it’s that it’s a little too on the nose at times in terms of lining up lyrics, songs, and moments in Javed’s life. There’s also a bit of pandering going on, but I think that’s more for those unschooled in Springsteen’s songbook or life story. In many ways, Blinded by the Light is a spiritual sequel to writer/director John Carney’s Sing Street (also a Sundance debut), set only two years earlier. I could totally see the young Irish musicians in that movie discovering Springsteen not long after working their way through the songs of Duran Duran, The Cure and Hall & Oates.
There is something so captivating and inspiring about laying witness to someone making a quantum leap in maturity or appreciation of something outside the world they inhabit. Blinded by the Light serves as both a tribute and a reminder that human beings should never be closed off to sources of inspiration, no matter how old or young we are. Even putting the bigger-picture themes aside, be prepared to do a great deal of singing, toe tapping and clapping. The spirit will move you.
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