Blinded By the Light
by DAN LYBARGER
When Bruce Springsteen screams, “It’s a town full of losers, but I’m pulling out of here to win” at the end of “Thunder Road,” you don’t have to be New Jersey car enthusiast to relate. The Boss’ lyrics can mean something to you, no matter where you might be on the globe.
It’s safe to say that British writer Sarfraz Manzoor took up his current profession because the Jersey Pope forced him to look at his hometown of Luton in a different way. Naturally, it’s fitting that you don’t have to be Pakistani immigrant or the child of Pakistani immigrants to find something relatable in Blinded by the Light, the new adaptation of his book Greetings from Bury Park.
Director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) finds plenty of current resonances in Manzoor’s depiction of Margaret Thatcher’s England and in Springsteen’s odes from the Garden State. She also helps explain how fanboys and fangirls can improve the world with their love of the Boss.
Just as The River, Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A., explored an economy that leaving people behind, Blinded by the Light recalls how Thatcher’s policies did few favors for legions of Brits.
In late 1980s Luton, Javed (Viveik Kalra) can on dream of getting out. It’s easy to see why. Because he’s lived almost all his life in England, he wouldn’t be at home in Pakistan. The fact that his Urdu is shaky doesn’t help either.
But in England, skinheads constantly harass Javed and his family for being immigrants or simply for not being white. The lad receives constant reminders that he’s an outsider even in his own town. While he does write words for his buddy Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) to sing with his band, the cheery songs dominating the British charts aren’t the sort of thing Javed writes.
Javed’s father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) would like to see his son take on a steady career like he has at the Vauxhall auto plant.
Only that gig isn’t so steady. Malik’s years of service result in a humiliating layoff.
Springsteen has been open about his struggles with depression, but the gloom buried in songs like “Born in the U.S.A.,” which is actually about an ostracized Vietnam War veteran, speaks to Javed and his Sikh pal Roops (Aaron Phagura), who introduces Davek to the Boss’ music as if it’s a religious calling.
As a new convert, Javed starts scribbling lyrics of his own and taking his writing more seriously. It helps that unlike casual fans, he dissects Springsteen’s verses as well as the chorus, which enables him to better understand their content. He can also interview fellow Desi residents in Luton because they won’t talk with white reporters.
Thankfully, there’s far more to Blinded by the Light than Springsteen fandom from people with British accents. The racism and Roos encounter hasn’t gone away, and Chadha depicts 1980s Luton, not with nostalgia but urgency. After all, in the era when the film is set, Springsteen’s tunes were out of step with the synth pop of the era. Even when his keyboardists Roy Bittan and Danny Federici played electronic keyboards, it didn’t sound like Duran Duran.
As a result, the movie becomes as much about Javed and Malik learning to understand each other. Malik is autocratic with the way he runs his household, but in his own way, he’s been as rebellious as Javed. Leaving for Karachi for Luton is as gutsy and maybe even more courageous than wearing The Boss’ denim vests. Ghir paints Malik in enough of a sympathetic light to prevent his own prejudices from making viewers dislike him.
While Springsteen has wholeheartedly endorsed and participated in Blinded by the Light (he’s appeared at the premiere and contributed a new song), he’s an almost mythic presence. While his music rightly dominates the soundtrack, he can only be seen in posters or on clips on the telly. Blinded by the Light, despite featuring a rousing depiction of “Born to Run,” is ultimately about Javed’s world and our own.
Some how both are more pleasant with songs from The River playing in the background.