Can a “feel-good” mainstream film ever be considered a great film? I think it can, but I don’t think Blinded by the Light (Gurinder Chadha, 2019) quite gets there in the end, despite its specialness. The film is special because of its access to the songs it uses (which would surely never be granted again so freely to any other film), and also because of who wrote and performed those songs: Bruce Springsteen. The storyline is pretty special too: a Pakistani teenager living in England in the 1980s becomes inspired by the songs of the American rocker Springsteen. Based on a memoir by British-Pakistani journalist/filmmaker Sarfraz Manzoor, the film is also sympathetically directed by Chadha, who is a Kenyan-born British-Indian, and self-confessed Springsteen fan. She is currently working on a remake of Robert Bresson’s L’Argent (1983), which indicates she has some spunk.
Last year, when Blinded by the Light was released theatrically, I had no idea it even existed, as mainstream films are for the main part above my radar. I had met my old high school friend Bill Dimas for a coffee, and he informed me about the film, and he added: “It’s my story.” And it’s true: as high school students in the early 1980s, we second-generation Greek migrant kids banded together (out of necessity more than choice), and Bill and I, with our friend Theo Giantsos, indeed were inspired by “The Boss” (Springsteen’s known nickname). (I was also inspired by punk and post-punk bands, but, in time, I came to love Springsteen more than any other musical artist.)
In Blinded by the Light, our hero Javed Khan (played joyfully by Viveik Kalra) experiences all the classic migrant assimilation problems: a stultifying family life, dominated by an authoritarian working-class upwardly-mobile father; a cultural clash between traditional Asian and modern Western values, creating a crisis of identity in Javed; and a sometimes-mild, sometimes-dangerous racism emanating from the broader community. Just like we Greek kids faced in Australia.
Obviously, Bruce Springsteen has a transnational, universal appeal, though I should qualify that by saying that the appeal is really only for English-speakers, as a lot of Springsteen’s essence is in his words. He is actually a sublime poet of the everyday, in both form and content: the words tell of the lives (the hopes and disappointments) of ordinary people, and they do so with a form of lyric-writing that uses an ingenuous “poeticised vernacular”, let’s call it. Couplets like “If dreams came true, oh, wouldn’t that be nice / But this ain’t no dream we’re living through tonight” are typical of Springsteen. That, combined with his non-rock-star looks and goofy, affable personality, has created a legion of devotees unlike any others in rock music history.
In Luton in England in 1987, Javed is surrounded by synth-pop with its banal lyrics, so when he is introduced to the music and words of Springsteen by the friendly Sikh student Roops (Aaron Phagura), it is like an arrow through his heart. The film has cleverly withheld any Springsteen music from the film (opening credits and beyond) until this moment, some 25 minutes into the film, and we share the vividness of the moment with Javed. Sitting in his room, with headphones on, and looking basically straight ahead, into the camera, his ears suddenly hear lines like “I ain’t nothin’ but tired” and “There’s something happening somewhere”, and Chadha cleverly displays the words on the screen in animations swirling around Javed’s head. Clever because the device makes the viewer aware of the words, and also aware of the epiphanic effect of them on Javed. An inventive montage of images then follows, as Javed relates each line to his own life. It’s a stirring sequence.
At the heart of Blinded by the Light is indeed its montage set-pieces to Springsteen classics such as “Born to Run”, “Badlands”, “The Promised Land” and other such passionate, inspirational “will-to-live” anthems. We all know these songs, they are ingrained in rock music history, but to see them combined with the characters in the film (and utilising certain musical forms) is a pure joy. It’s actually one of the redeeming features of mainstream films, their musical montage sequences using known songs. And in the hands of masters such as Martin Scorsese, say in Mean Streets (1973), the device becomes very artful (and it’s always a surprise, whenever an interesting conjunction occurs between a known piece of music and a film’s images). They say that cinema contains (or can work with) all the other art forms, but surely cinema and music are a marriage made in heaven.
Of course, for those who know Springsteen’s work beyond his known classics, he not only has songs about liberation and self-realisation and resistance and connection, he also has many songs about collapse, alienation, depression, suicide, even murder. His range is truly astounding, and sometimes his vision is haunted and contradictory, acknowledging the deep difficulty of negotiating a cruel world: “Struck me kinda funny, funny yeah to me / How at the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe.”
Blinded by the Light gets into this more difficult territory in relation to Javed’s relationship with his father Malik (played superbly by Kulvinder Ghir). Ultimately, there’s always a tension between our self-determination and our connection with others, especially with our parents. So Chadha wisely brings in Springsteen’s down-beat meditation “Independence Day”, a song that expresses the difficulty of relating to one’s father: “There was just no way this house could hold the two of us … Papa I know the things you wanted … I swear I never meant to take those things away.”
Unfortunately, the broad brush strokes used by the script (everything is either epiphanies/triumphs on the one hand, or obstacles/ugliness on the other – not many “grey areas” involved) mean that the reconciliation between Javed and his father at the end comes across as very unrealistic. But that’s “feel-good” films for you – they like to have a completely happy ending if possible, with a total affirmation of life achieved.
Sarfraz Manzoor’s original book that the film is based on, Greetings from Bury Park: Race. Religion. Rock ‘n’ Roll, actually does have grey areas, and also a number of major differences to the film’s script, but Manzoor co-wrote the film’s script, along with Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges, and he has embraced the film, so, behind the scenes, it truly is a “feel-good” production at the least. Manzoor understands that films always reduce books, and bend the truth at times. He is simply justifiably happy that his story has been turned into a major film.
Certainly some aspects of his story have not been airbrushed out by the film, such as the white-supremacy racism of the National Front and its supporters. The local fascist skinhead taunts Javed in his own neighborhood, and an NF rally on the street turns ugly and members of Javed’s family are violently attacked, in a truly shocking moment in such an upbeat film. Chadha uses the song “Jungleland” here, and the lyrics match uncannily: “Outside the street’s on fire in a real death-waltz / Between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy.” As the fighting subsides, Chadha cuts to a wider shot and we see a billboard with a photo of Margaret Thatcher, with the caption “Uniting Britain”, and her pose, her right arm upstretched in a quasi-Nazi salute. Provocative? This shows Chadha’s passion.
(A beautiful side-story to this scene: Chadha’s plan was to use the long saxophone solo played by the late Clarence Clemons in “Jungleland” over the scenes of the National Front marching and being violent against the Pakistanis and Muslims, but she was concerned that using music by an Afro-American in this context might have been misconstrued or that maybe it was just inappropriate anyway, so she sat down with Springsteen one day to tell him about the scene. He sat quietly as she explained the scene to him, and he listened carefully, and after a while, he broke his silence and said, simply: “Clarence would have liked that.”)
Overall, Blinded by the Light, despite being directed intelligently, is constricted by its simplistic script and its need to be a commercial product, so it’s a flawed achievement ultimately. But it’s certainly a unique film and a very moving one if you happen to be a Bruce Springsteen fan. Unlike other Springsteen-influenced films such as The Indian Runner (Sean Penn, 1991) or Light of Day (Paul Schrader, 1987), Blinded by the Light has a real sense of fun and magic to it, brilliantly capturing the soul-burning emotional charge of those ‘70s and ‘80s classic Springsteen songs.