Photo: Warner Brothers. Javed (Viveik Kalra), a British teen of Pakistani descent growing up in the town of Luton, England, in 1987, discovers Bruce Springsteen songs and his life changes.
Photo: Warner Brothers. Javed (Viveik Kalra), a British teen of Pakistani descent growing up in the town of Luton, England, in 1987, discovers Bruce Springsteen songs and his life changes.

‘Blinded by the Light’: a paean to Bruce Springsteen in an unlikely place

Originally posted Tuesday, August 13, 2019 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Bruce Springsteen is known as the ultimate American storyteller, a voice for the neglected and often forgotten working class. 

But his appeal is worldwide and the uplifting film “Blinded by the Light,” out nationally Friday, August 16, features a story inspired by real life about a Pakistani teen in England in 1987 whose worldview is changed when he places a Boss cassette into his Walkman. About a dozen Springsteen cuts are featured, from “Born to Run” to “Dancing in the Dark.” 

British-Indian film-maker Gurinder Chadha - best known for her delightful 2002 romantic sports comedy “Bend it Like Beckham” - grew up on soul music. But she was working at Harrods department store as a teen in the mid-1970s, a dude in a beard turned her on to Springsteen’s “Born to Run” album. 

She was immediately impressed that there was a shot of Springsteen embracing saxophonist Clarence Clemons. Then she placed the vinyl on a turntable and it was revelatory.

“The saxophone was incredibly soulful, very spiritual,” Chadha said in a recent visit to Atlanta to promote her film at the Asian American Journalists Association national convention.  “That led me to Bruce’s lyrics. I loved the way he went from acoustic to energy to acoustic. He sang about ordinary people struggling to get by. It was the reality of my parents. Of most people.” 

By 1987, in England, Springsteen was already a bit passé among teens focused on the New Wave world of a-ha, the Cure and the Pet Shop Boys or the poppier sounds of Debbie Gibson and Tiffany, who are the butt of a few jokes during the film. 

So when Javed (Viveik Kalra), a contemplative British-Pakistani Muslim who loves writing poetry, is handed “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and Springsteen’s seminal 1984 “Born in the U.S.A.” by a Sikh friend, he is understandably skeptical. 

“What does he know about our world?” Javed said.

But when he listens to “Dancing in the Dark” for the first time, he is transported to the point that the film shows the lyrics swirling around him. 

Chadha wants to illustrate how Springsteen was literally telling Javed what to do and by cinematic choice, “I couldn’t afford to let the audience just by chance hear what he was saying. I wanted to make it clear that it was totally related to Javed’s situation. I didn’t want basic subtitles. I needed to make the words emotional.” 

The filmmaker had read the 2008 memoir by Sarfraz Manzoor, which focused on how Springsteen became Manzoor’s personal muse as a teen in the 1970s and 1980s. She told Manzoor she wanted to turn it into a film but needed Springsteen’s clearance for the music. How was she going to get that, she thought?

Two years later, she heard Springsteen was in London in 2010 for a documentary about the making of his album “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” She got access to the red carpet with Manzoor, who had seen Springsteen at least 150 times and knew him personally. He brought his book along.

Springsteen recognized Manzoor and told him he loved the book, which much to Manzoor’s shock, he had already read. “Sanfraz had a complete meltdown,” Chadha said. 

At that moment, Chadha realized her window of opportunity was there to pitch her movie idea to Springsteen. “I bombarded him very unprofessionally,” she said. “I had ten seconds. He said, ‘Sounds good.’” Moments later, she was exchanging contact information with his people. 

She wrote a script and Springsteen gave it a full thumb’s up. “He trusted me,” Chadha said, with a sense of wonder. “I had to make a film for Bruce, for Bruce fans and non-Bruce fans. It was a balancing act.”

Once she completed the film a year ago, she screened it with trepidation for Springsteen in New York. She was sitting behind and to the side of Bruce and spent much of the film watching him watching the movie. As the credits rolled, there was silence. 

She nervously got up to turn on the lights. “I turned around and he walked over and gave me a big kiss and put his arms around me,” Chadha said. “He said, ‘Wow! Thank you for looking after me so beautifully. I love it. Don’t change a thing!’”

She tried her best to stay composed as he spent the next hour raving about various aspects of the film, even some of the anti-Bruce jokes sprinkled in. He especially loved when Javed’s New Wave best friend heard “Born to Run” and said, “The lyrics are crap! It doesn’t even rhyme!” 

Chadha hopes the movie introduces Springsteen to a new generation and ignites the interests of those who grew up with him but may not have paid so much attention to what he was expressing.

“For five decades, he has been saying the same thing and he’s as relevant now as he is then,” Chadha said. “He’s like an old friend, very reliable. He comforts you and gives you a few smiles and a little hope.” 

She also said it was her own personal “anti-Brexit” film. While anti-immigrant sentiments are shown in stark light during the film, she features plenty of scenes of understanding, support and love. “The country was so divided,” she said. “All these xenophobes came out. God gave me a voice and I wanted to communicate the other side and how far we’ve really come.” 

The film received rapturous reception at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. On Rotten Tomatoes, critics gave “Blinded by the Light” a 92 percent positive ratings while 95 percent of viewers liked it

“It'll remind you of the importance of chasing dreams and loving yourself as well as others,” said USA Today’s Brian Truitt

“A celebration of how music can mean so much, especially when it hits you at a vulnerable time in your life,” said Houston Chronicle’s Cary Darling.

“Let Bruce's wisdom into your life. You don't have to be blind to the flaws of this film to view it as a ray of sunshine,” said Charlotte O’ Sullivan of the London Evening Standard. 

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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