Bruce Springsteen is “your dad’s music”, insists a character in Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light. By 1987 in Luton, England, Springsteen is already so passé that every self-respecting teen is dazzled instead by Tiffany and Rick Astley. The film’s lead character, Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra), is more a Pet Shop Boys fan.
But when the local car factory shuts down, fathers are on the dole and the small town’s working-class community comes apart at the seams, who else can hold a candle to that rage but The Boss?
Javed’s character is based on the life of writer Sarfraz Manzoor whose autobiography, Greetings from Bury Park, pays homage to Springsteen’s debut 1973 album, Greetings from Asbury Park. Manzoor fell in love with Springsteen’s words as a teenager and he has seen Springsteen play live more than 150 times.
Chadha, whose film credits include Bend It Like Beckham, is a fan of Springsteen and Manzoor. She told The New York Times that she wanted to pay homage to “writing and words” in this film.
How can cinema convey the joy an adolescent writer feels on discovering that even if no one understands you at home, someone out there has just the right words for exactly how you feel? Chadha answers that question literally, projecting Springsteen’s lyrics on to walls while Javed rocks out in front of them, or has words occasionally dipping around Javed’s head like inspirational hornets.
For the soundtrack, she uses either one of the 12 songs Springsteen agreed could be used for the film or AH Rahman’s soaring compositions. Rahman has 182 composing credits on IMDb, the world’s authoritative film database, and he got none of them through slow, spare, meditative and minimalist music.
It’s such a joyous overload of sight and sound that viewers might be able to see that there are words but struggle to absorb what they mean. Oddly, that’s one of the reasons so many people mistake Springsteen’s Born in the USA as the soundtrack to a patriotic wet dream when it is, in fact, an indictment of the country’s treatment of Vietnam veterans.
A state of constant overload explains why Blinded by the Light is such a flawed crowd pleaser. It is filled with perfectly caught observational details about 1980s Britain: the haircuts; the décor; Britain’s casual racism embodied by Javed’s girlfriend’s parents; Britain’s formal racism in the relationship between the Conservatives and the National Front; the nightclubs that open in the middle of the day so that British Asian teenagers can go clubbing without their parents knowledge; and the relationship between Javed and his neighbour Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman).
The casting of Meera Ganatra as Noor, Javed’s mother, who makes magic of the few lines she’s given, is a delightful surprise. But for every diamond, there’s a flaw.
Chadha has insisted that she didn’t want to make “a jukebox musical”, so it’s odd that she chose to include not one but two Bollywood-style dance numbers. Rather than commit to the form, the dances in the street are shot from rooftops at angles that demonstrate just how small a budget the choreographer was given.
The nightclub scene is also problematic. If you knew daytime discos in the 1980s, you would recognise the form of a “daytimer”, but may not relate to the content. Daytimers during the 1980s notoriously featured loads of zitty boys drinking vodka at 1pm. But in this film’s version, everyone is beautiful and there are a couple of blokes in a nightclub filled with young women. It just feels like an odd detail to get wrong when so much effort was poured into getting everything else right.
If you know a little less about the context, however, and you aren’t expecting social realism from the director of Bend It Like Beckham, then you’re in for a treat. Blinded by the Light got a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, United States, earlier this year. And that applause was undoubtedly because the winning cast was working extremely hard.
In-jokes from the BBC
Fans of the 1990s BBC TV and radio sketch series Goodness Gracious Me won’t only recognise Kulvinder Ghir, who plays Malik, Javed’s father, they’ll also recognise the series’ best joke: Springsteen sings about the importance of hard work, not giving up and respecting your elders. “He must be Pakistani,” says Malik.
Chadha says the film was made to “build bridges … when people are trying to build walls”. At Sundance, New Line Films bought it for $15 million (about R200 million). It has grossed $10 million so far.
The person who understands that Springsteen’s poetry may not best be served by high amplification, bright lights and High School Musical-style antics is Springsteen himself. Rather than play to packed stadiums in front of a wall of sound, he spent last year selling out 236 solo shows in a 980-seat theatre on Broadway in New York (now available on Netflix). His acoustic version of Born in the USA reaches a level of power that the anthem never quite does.
Though Springsteen writes songs in fair weather and foul, the zenith of his relevance seems to be in the darkest years, in the recessions of the 1970s and late 1980s, and today’s recession and rise of the far right.
Matamoros Banks is written from the perspective of a migrant who drowned while crossing the Rio Grande into Texas. It’s a simple acoustic track with heartbreaking lyrics sung quietly, with deep power in reserve. It couldn’t be more relevant. He wrote it in 2005. Back when it was “your dad’s” music.