Synopsis: In 1980’s Britain a teen from a Pakistani family finds inspiration in the music of Bruce Springsteen.
What’s a life lived without inspiration? It’s like a movie without a plot. A protagonist without agency. A theater without an audience. It’s there, but lacks meaning. Just like that Jupiter Ascending movie.
Blinded by the Light, directed by Gurinder Chadha and based on Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir Greetings from Bury Park, takes us to Margaret Thatcher’s 1980’s England. A bit of background… The Prime Minister’s policies to control inflation (increasing interest rates slowed the economy, the pound strengthened and made British exports less competitive) worked so well that manufacturing went belly-up and resulted in mass unemployment. Maggie’s tender heart earned her the moniker, the ‘Iron Lady.’ Much to her chagrin, I’m sure, the ten percent unemployment figures gave youths plenty of free time to mohawk their hair, get safety pin piercings and listen to punk rock songs about anarchy and being on the dole.
In more flush times Britain had welcomed immigrants to fill labor shortages, especially in manufacturing. Some of the new residents were from Pakistan, a member nation of the Commonwealth. Their children identified as British-Pakistani. White fascists did all sorts of neighborly things like “Paki bashing” to let South Asians know they were not wanted.
“Baby this town rips the bones from your back…we gotta get out while we’re young” (from “Born to Run“)
Zoom to 1987 England, in Luton, a large town north of London, where teen Javed Khan could use some inspiration. He has to dodge rando skinheads in his working class neighborhood. And he is awk as can be at his uni prep high school full of white kids. Javed wants to be a writer, but his domineering dad thinks that his poetry is a waste of time.
Javed wishes he could stand up for himself… get out of Luton… kiss a girl…follow his dreams. But he’s got no game, no leverage in his own life.
At home his dad lectures him while his mom works sewing late into the night. His sisters have their own problems trying to be good Pakistani children in their parents’ eyes. Javed mostly studies when he’s not looking for a part-time job. He has had the same best mate since childhood, Matt, but his dad won’t even let his son cross the parking lot of their apartment complex to go to a party at Matt’s place. Matt is kind of an 80’s cultural disaster with his chav clothes, big moussed hair and synth pop band. Javed tries to help out his friend with lyrics, but Matt complains that they’re too depressing and political. Then he resumes making out with his latest girlfriend.
“I’m just tired and bored with myself…There’s something happening somewhere…Baby, I just know that there is” (from “Dancing in the Dark”)
Javed tries to branch out at school… his English teacher Ms. Clay ( Hayley Atwell, so brilliant in the Black Mirror ep Be Right Back) sees promise in his writing. A cute, politically active classmate, Eliza takes an interest in him. And he meets another South Asian student, “Roops.” His new friend has wisely rejected the rubbishy top of the pops-esque music scene. Poor Javed; that is all he knows. Even his little sister knows better, rocking out to South Asian dance music at sneaky daytime parties. One day in the school cafeteria, Roops lends Javed a couple of the Boss’s cassette tapes and tries to explain to his naïve, yet cynical friend that the Boss is the Answer, a lifeline. The Boss is Bruce Springsteen. Are you unfamiliar with him? He is a rock poet and his guitar solos are legend. His concerts are hours and hours long because his fans don’t want to leave. Back when rock was still alive, he was a god.
One night at home, frustrated and upset, Javed puts on his headphones, hits play on his Walkman (a portable tape player) and hears Bruce Springsteen, this white guy from America, for the first time. His face goes slack and his eyes light up — epiphany time! The family’s apartment is too small to contain everything he’s feeling. He rushes outside, into a storm, and absorbs song after song.
“Mister, I ain’t a boy/ No, I’m a man/ And I believe in the promised land” (from “The Promised Land”)
As the school year advances he continues to overdose on his new idol’s words and music. Dorky adolescence collides with visionary soundscapes. He finds courage in the lyrics–sometimes. Now, if you look at Springsteen’s older stuff, there’s a lot of talk about racing cars and going to the shore. Not much of that in Luton. But he also sings of desire and dreams. And that is adolescent fuel.
Maybe Javed and Eliza will fall in love. Hopefully he won’t end up like the guy who had sex down by “The River” and “got Mary pregnant/ And man, that was all she wrote.” Maybe he will head off to uni to study. Hopefully he won’t end up working “down at the car wash where all it ever does is rain/ Now I feel like I’m a rider on a downbound train.” But Javed is such a good guy– he’s kind to his crush and writes her poetry, he tries to be good friend, brother and son — that you want him to have a happy ending, or in this case a happy beginning.
Writer Sarfraz Manzoor’s younger self saw himself in Bruce’s lyrics about longing for something more and facing life’s challenges. Bruce also had conflicts with his dad, wanted to leave his hometown and make a living in an unconventional way. Explaining what he wanted to express when he wrote the song “Blinded by the Light,” Springsteen says, “I wanted to get blinded by the light, I wanted to do things I hadn’t done, see things I hadn’t seen.” And who can’t relate to that?