It would be easy to assume that the new movie Blinded by the Light — which squeezes maximum uplift out of the tale of a 1980s British-Pakistani teen in the gritty U.K. town of Luton who finds liberation in the music of Bruce Springsteen — is part of the current Hollywood wave of classic-rock-sploitation (Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, Yesterday, and soon, no doubt, Styx and Kansas biopics). In reality, while the trend certainly didn’t hurt its buzz at Sundance earlier this year, Blinded by the Light is a low-budget British independent film, a long-in-the-works passion project based on the story of journalist Sarfraz Manzoor (first told in his memoir Greetings From Bury Park), and directed by Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham), a longtime Springsteen fan in her own right. Springsteen himself was a fan of Manzoor’s book, which paved the way for a movie filled with, and defined by, his music. Chadha and Manzoor (who wrote the screenplay with Chadha and Paul Berges) shared some insight into the film’s creation.
Chadha describes the movie as a sort of social-realist musical, with a timely universalist message in the age of Brexit and Trump.
“I don’t think any of us would have known why how relevant it was going to be when the movie actually came out,” she says, “in all kinds of countries all over the world. Through the amazing words and philosophies of Bruce Springsteen, we want to show a different path, a different version of society. And as he says, ‘No one wins unless everybody wins.’
“In that sense, we all stand side by side, and it’s not an us or them — we’re all in it together. And that’s what I think the majority of people want to raise their kids to know. That’s what makes us human. And Bruce is all about empathy. And that’s the point, really, of the film.”
Manzoor adds: “I think one of the reasons it’s doing well with audiences, is that it offers some joy and hope in a joyless and hopeless time. You’re suddenly reminded it’s possible for a Muslim kid in England to adore the idea of America and completely worship the best American icon there is.”
Manzoor, understandably, had to get used to some of the movie’s fictionalized elements.
His movie counterpart, renamed Javed, has a ramped-up conflict with his strict father, for instance — in real life, Manzoor would never have talked back to his dad as a teenager. “I needed to tell him, this character is inspired by you, but he can’t be you,” Gurinder explains. “I have to start adding moments that didn’t necessarily happen in your life. But at its core it’ll always be a 16-year-old kid who turns to Bruce Springsteen to help him in dark times.”
Manzoor was initially dubious of the film’s romantic subplot, “because I didn’t have a girlfriend then. And for me, the film was, at the core, a buddy movie and a father/son movie. I totally get it because it adds another dimension to the film. But I was never as invested in as I was the family stuff and in the Bruce stuff. There were times when I was watching the film and I thought I’m just watching a film. This is not me.” One idea he nixed outright was a scene where the character gets drunk, since Manzoor doesn’t drink: “That would’ve been too weird for me.” One of the best additions was a scene set in a daytimer, an afternoon nightclub aimed at British kids of South Asian backgrounds that includes the film’s greatest non-Springsteen song, the bhangra banger “Maar Chadapa” by the group Heera. “I needed an element where the British-Asian story was also being told,” says Gurinder, “and not just through Bruce.”
Springsteen personally approved a disquieting scene where a brutal racist attack is set to the saxophone coda of “Jungleland.”
“As I was shooting that scene, all I was hearing was that sax in my head,” says Chadha. “But there was a massive dilemma there – it’s set in a march about hate, and I love ‘Jungleland.’ And then when we came to see Bruce on Broadway, we met him after. I was talking to him, and I said to him I want to use ‘Jungleland’ for this sequence of a fascist March; I want to use the sax of Clarence Clemons. And I want to just cut a little bit to the relevant parts, but I can’t do that without your permission. And he looked at me and went, ‘I think Clarence would really like that.'”
Chadha recently learned that Patti Scialfa likely helped the movie get made.
“Now that I’ve spoken to Patti,” says Chadha, who met her at the film’s Asbury Park premiere, “she’s such a supporter of women. She was a massive fan of Bend It Like Beckham. She was basically saying to Bruce, ‘That Gurinder, she’s so talented…'”
Manzoor hopes the movie’s specific and authentic cultural details only make the movie more universal.
“Bruce spoke to me in Luton with his work, which seems defined in specificity, but actually was universal,” he says. “And so what I’ve done on my work. And with this film, is do something which feels like it’s specific to my culture and my country. But actually, it’s as universal as Springsteen’s music.”
The film’s mix of darkness (the racism and xenophobia of the National Front) and unabashed, over-the-top joy (a dream-like sequence set to “Born to Run”) reflects Chadha’s own life experiences.
“Our lives in the Eighties, there was a lot of racism, money problems there was a lot of hardship,” she says. “But I don’t want to make films which are two-dimensional, which only show us as the problem. People who aren’t from my background, they reduce our lives to the problematic, and our lives are also full of joy, and love, and,and celebration. And so for me, as a filmmaker, I find, that’s my language to go to show you struggle, and then to show you humor and joy… I’ve had to find a way to tell my stories, get them made, and financed by people who don’t necessarily understand my point of view in life.
“My identity is very complex. I’m multi-lingual and culturally very mixed. People who are monolingual and mono-cultural often don’t understand what that means. I can walk down the street and experience casual racism, and 10 minutes later, I’ll be with my kids and feeling really joyful. I’m not going to give people the satisfaction of seeing my life as just defined by race and racism. I’m the only British Asian woman making movies regularly — though there are some new ones coming up, which is great — and I refuse to be pigeonholed. I take it to a place of celebration, because we get through every day. People may think what I do is cheesy, but for people like me, it’s an emotional experience, because I’m giving voice to that complexity.”
The filmmakers are aware that one musical moment — Javed listens to a Springsteen studio version of “Because the Night” circa 1987, before such a thing was available — is technically impossible.
Manzoor likes to think that maybe it was an extremely rare bootleg.
Manzoor has no plans to try to top the Blinded by the Light experience anytime soon.
“Rather than thinking immediately about, ‘OK, what’s the next month to climb,'” he says, “I kind of just want to be present to enjoy it. I also think this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. So I don’t think I’m going to match this. But maybe I’ll do what Springsteen does, you know, every time he had something big. After he did The River he did Nebraska; after he did Born in the U.S.A., he did Tunnel of Love. So maybe the idea is that you don’t try and follow a blockbuster with another blockbuster. But you stay true to the stories you want to tell.”