In 1973, Bruce Springsteen recorded the song “Blinded by the Light” on his debut album Greetings From Asbury Park. It was popularized, though overplayed all the way to number one, by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band in 1976 with confusing lyrics that couldn’t be Googled as we can today. It began:
Well she was
Blinded by the light
Revved up like a deuce
Another runner in the nightIt went on to mention Mozart, calliopes, curly wurly, the mumps, silicone and other poetic or seemingly psychedelic references in a catchy and up-tempo tune. What was this stuff? It was in 1975 that I picked up a copy of Time magazine that positioned Springsteen as the new Dylan. Newsweek called him “Rock’s New Sensation.” That kind of hype can be as damaging as helpful. A subsequent contract dispute had him take a year off to write songs, another risk and more fuel for his legend.
As we later became familiar with Springsteen’s gutsy, stream of consciousness lyrical style the song’s source came to make sense, though was perhaps no better understood. Oh well, on to “Born to Run” for a more relatable ride through the streets of New Jersey. Now shift your attention to real life Sarfraz Manzoor (Javed in the film), a young Pakistani boy living in Luton, England during Margaret Thatcher’s era of job loss, racism and 1980s synth-pop. As the film portrays Javed, a friend turns him on to “The Boss” and a superfan is born. Springsteen’s lyrics speak to him about the power of dreams and possibilities, even though the music is “what your parents listen to” according to a school DJ.
Newcomer Viviek Kalra plays Javed, the aspiring poet and writer living amidst an influx of British Pakistanis and under the thumb of his oppressive father. Job loss hits hard as the family struggles to pay bills and save face. Dad, played by Kulvinder Ghir, wants nothing more for his son than to be more than a cab driver, but refuses to recognize Javed’s passion for writing as a possible means to that end. Family drama expands to include a sister’s wedding, impacted by anti-Muslim demonstrations (yeah, 30 years ago), blatant racist attacks and the concept of arranged marriages. “I’ll find a wife for you” says Dad to Javed. He continues, “Stay away from the girls! Make friends with Jews. They are successful people.” Javed is doubly mortified by his father’s loud, sexist and racist proclamations as he is dropped off at school from a malfunctioning car near a group of female students.
The possibility of awkward music-video storytelling lingers early in the film. But there are several unlikely but fun musical interludes when Javed strolls the street with the E-Street Band blaring through his Walkman’s headphones. The music seemingly morphs him from shy “Paki” to red plaid/denim “Boss” when most needed. Who hasn’t pre-gamed a party with a favorite track or gotten musically pumped for a race? We’ve all seen Michael Phelps do it.
Javed even falls in love with a cute activist, a renegade and misfit in her own right. Their romance becomes a nice subplot in the overarching story that finds Javed on a mission to attend college to learn writing and visit New Jersey – home of The Boss. An exchange with a customs official takes a positive turn in light of the prevailing racist sentiments. We can’t help but hear our stomachs churn in hindsight at the pre-911 world of airport security.
Kalra, though limited to TV work and this being his first film, possesses an on-camera charm that legitimizes this journey. And being a true story, we get to see photos of the real Javed (Sarfraz) in selfies with Springsteen, who began to recognize him as the only Pakistani at over 150 concerts. Yes, he was blinded by the light, and timing is everything. A book he wrote about his quest came to the attention of Director Gurinder Chadha, who attended a red carpet event where they met Springsteen, quickly pitched the idea of a movie and gained acceptance from the musician. Very gracious and appreciative, Springsteen did not attend the film’s premiere for fear of taking away from the experience. He thanked Chadha for the beautiful treatment of his life’s work. What a guy!
The film culminates in a writing award ceremony. Javed’s English professor, played by an almost unrecognizable Haley Atwell, slimmed down from her Marvel role as Captain America’s sweetheart, Agent Carter, advocates for Javed and is instrumental in propelling him to success, to believe in himself and attend college at Manchester.
The multi-talented Director of Bend It Like Beckham and a wide range of TV work, writing and acting, Gurinder Chadha capitalizes on the global immigration crisis without sacrificing the tender story of a coming of age dreamer. Positivity rules the day in this feel good film. My expectations weren’t particularly high, but I enjoyed the ride with this “scared and lonely rider.”
Blinded By The Light (2019) runs 1 hour 58 minutes and is rated PG-13.