The cultural conversation around representation is vital, and it’s improving not only the lives of people, it’s giving us better stories and better creators. It’s a net positive. But I think there’s an aspect of this discussion we’re not having all that often, and Blinded by the Light really gets to the root of it – the faces we see onscreen may be specific, but their stories are universal.
Blinded by the Light is a nice movie. It’s nice in a way that Bruce Springsteen’s songs are not; where The Boss sings songs of rough edged losers seeking redemption while exploding the limits of a stifling society, the lead of Blinded by the Light is all soft edges and polite rebellion. It’s the kind of movie to which you can safely take your parents, the kind of movie where the racists who give the film’s Pakistani trouble family are (except for one scene, which might be one of the film’s best scenes) easily identifiable by their white supremacist drag. You can tut-tut at the Nazis while not getting caught up in questions about the larger structure in which this is taking place. Bruce is deeply concerned about the larger structure. Blinded by the Light is not.
But for all its harmlessness – and this is such a harmless movie that I considered making this review simply the review given to Earth in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Blinded by the Light manages to engage in some really interesting thematic stuff, and it has a gooey heart that is, in the end, irresistable. Plus it’s packed wall-to-wall with Springsteen songs, some of them played in their entirety.
Those sequences are the film’s best. In these sequences director Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham) gets to open up, and the movie turns into the musical it should be from front to back. These sequences are vividly joyful, and too few. The rest of the movie is very standard light drama; never too heavy, always a few seconds away from a tension relieving bit of blandness.
In between those musical sequences is the story of Javed Khan (Viviek Kaira, who is so good looking in such a non-threatening, friendly way that I imagine he could become a huge star), dweeby first generation British Pakistani kid. He lives in a traditional household in a dreary English town, and he dreams of being a writer. One day at his new school he bumps into (literally) a Sikh kid and in the ensuing confusion learns about the existence of Bruce Springsteen.
This movie takes place in 1987, and that means I have a hard time believing Javed never heard of Bruce, although the whole thing is based on the true life story of Safraz Manzoor, who wrote the book the movie is based on, so maybe that’s how it happened. At any rate, Javed listens to Born in the USA and Darkness on the Edge of Town and his brain is hopelessly rewired (this is one of those nice musical scenes). Overnight he is transformed into a Bruce megafan, and he begins modeling his life on Springsteen.
He begins modeling his life on Springsteen to such an extent that every exchange Javed has in the movie must have someone eventually mentioning Springsteen; at one point he brings his girlfriend home to his empty house and says “It’s just me and you in here,” and she says to him “And Bruce,” which elevates Springsteen to Holy Ghost levels of omnipresence. There’s so much Springsteen in this movie that it begins to take on the air of a paid advertisement for Springsteen – surely Javed must have something else going on in his life besides his love of mid-period Bruce (the film references Tunnel of Love but does not show us Javed’s disappointment upon buying the album).
Anyway, what’s really great here is that Javed – this dorky kid growing up in a religious Muslim household in a grey English town – completely connects with Springsteen’s characters and stories. Viscerally, immediately connects. The words literally dance around Javed’s head as he listens to Promised Land on a cassette tape. For the first time in his life Javed hears songs that speak absolutely, directly and personally to him, despite them having been written by a man whose life experience is, on the surface, incredibly different.
But this is the beauty of art, the movie tells us. You don’t have to look like me for me to understand your story, because how we look is only a part of who we are. There are human experiences – love, longing, hope, defeat – that are universal. The magical paradox of art is that the more specific your art – the more streets Bruce name drops, the more real people he knows he turns into characters – the more universal it becomes.
And yet that doesn’t discount the vital importance of seeing yourself in more concrete ways. There is no Pakistani Bruce Springsteen in this movie, but there is Malik Khan (Kulvinder Ghir), the Sikh kid who introduces Javed to Bruce and becomes his best friend. It’s vital that Javed is introduced to the Boss by someone who, on some level, looks like him because it helps open the door. The movie doesn’t spend a lot of time on it, but there is an off-hand comment that Javed should listen to his people’s music, not this white people music, because otherwise he’s going to come to hate himself (this is said by his sister, not a Neo-Nazi, although they are also in disbelief that a kid of Pakistani origin could love the Boss). As Javed grows up and becomes a man in the mold of Bruce, we see that he envisions himself as a kind of role-model not only to his younger self but conceptually by extension to other brown-skinned kids who might otherwise not feel comfortable loving what they love.
And it works the other way around as well. As a 45 year old white American dude I found I could identify with big bits of Javed’s story even though my circumstances were quite different. Feeling trapped in your small world as a kid – even growing up in New York City I felt that way. I got that sense of isolation that was pierced by the voice of a singer who spoke to me in ways that were so personal it was uncanny. I’ve had that experience of art that transformed me in fundamental ways.
There is another version of this movie that approaches this stuff with a little more force. Javed’s relationship with his own culture is complicated, and while there are interesting cinematic moments dealing with this (his sister takes him to a secret daytime Pakistani rave; at first he listens to Bruce on his headphones, isolating himself from the people who look but do not at all dress like him, but eventually he takes them off and enjoys the Pakistani disco music and joins the crowd) it feels like there was more to mine. But perhaps that’s because the movie has a few too many stories on its mind – there’s also the relationship Javed has with his former best friend, a white kid who is now really into Flock of Seagulls type pop music, and who can’t understand Springsteen, and then there’s Javed’s relationship with a politically progressive white girl who has racist parents and then there’s the growing Neo-Nazi menace in Thatcher Britain and there’s Hayley Atwell as the teacher who sees Javed’s talents while his father wants him to get a high-paying job…. None of these are overwhelming, but when the movie is trying very hard to be mainstream and nice none of them can get the real exploration they deserve.
Except for one scene. There’s one scene in this movie that is heartbreaking and enraging and that I think transcends its larger “nice” tone. Javed and his dad are visiting with another Pakistani family in town, talking about helping other Pakistani families move in, when they hear a commotion at the door. It’s a bunch of blonde little English boys, and they’re pissing through the mail slot. Their leering faces are distorted behind the glass of the door, and the only part of them that comes into the home is this stream of urine.
But what’s really heartbreaking in the moment is that the family has set up a runner of plastic under the door; this happened before and happens all the time, and they’ve piss-proofed their home as a result. This moment is more troubling than the Nazi march later in the film because that march is shown as a disruption of the day-to-day – this IS the day-to-day.
This is the only scene in Blinded by the Light that feels like it could have come from a Springsteen song, this family trying to maintain their dignity in the face of hate, trying to maintain their hope in the face of a community that doesn’t want them. More than once I thought this movie was about the wrong character; this was one of those times.
This the second movie this summer about a young man from the Indian subcontinent being tied up with “white people music” from the past. Where Yesterday was awful (and, I suspect, never written with an Indian lead in mind), Blinded by the Light is fine. It’s sentimental and broad, it never has half the grit of even the most playful Springsteen song, but it’s positive-minded in a way that feels quietly revolutionary at the moment.
And more than that I think it crystalizes all aspects of the need for representation – it isn’t that some stories are for some people and not for others. All stories are for all people. But we still need ways into those stories, and seeing people who look like us either onscreen/on the album cover or enjoying those things can give us the way into the universal stories that lie within. And maybe I’m being too harsh on the movie’s slightly bland niceness – I felt emotion throughout, and I was touched, and perhaps just as important to seeing yourself reflected in the art/the fanbase is the ability to feel that the art is approachable. There’s a very 2019 moment where Javed tells his old best friend that he’s sorry for shit-talking the garbage pop music he likes, where Javed understands that his buddy hears himself in that music. Perhaps that’s a lesson I should take to heart when rolling my eyes at feel-good films that are slightly too saccharine.