In recent years there has been much talk among the cultural commentariat regarding the need for onscreen diversity. Of course everyone should be able to see themselves represented in movies, whether that be by a reflection of their race, gender or sexuality; but it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that artists don’t need to share your own specific cultural attributes in order to speak directly to you. As a white Irishman, I’ve seen the distinctive traits of my culture represented a lot more accurately in Japanese and Korean cinema than in the movies of my own country’s film industry. As a teen I found the music of U2 so alien that Bono and co. might as well have come from another galaxy rather than a few miles down the road from my house; rather I connected, like so many young working class kids in the British isles have over the decades, with the music of African-Americans; Miles Davis showed me what he was feeling with his heartfelt music, unlike Bono, who simply told me his troubles in his lyrics.
In music, as in cinema, I’ve always favored the emotional over the literary, so I’ve never been able to really connect with the sort of “three chords and the truth” music of the likes of Bruce Springsteen, though I can recognize his talent. As such, I went into Blinded by the Light worried that I was about to see a hagiographic love letter to the artist known as The Boss, and when the pop music landscape of 1987 is presented, I couldn’t help thinking how much more joyous and moving a piece of music Level 42’s “Lessons in Love” is than anything Springsteen has ever recorded. Thankfully my fears were dispelled, as while director Gurinder Chadha’s film is bound to win Springsteen a few new fans, it commendably recognizes that his music wasn’t the only show in town in the ‘80s, arguably the last great era of popular music.
Unlike myself, the young protagonist of Chadha’s film, the 16-year-old British-Pakistani Javed (Viveik Kalra), very much finds himself represented in the music of Springsteen. Like any teenager, Javed is confused about what life has in store for him, but along with the usual frustration regarding the inattention of girls, Javed has to deal with his strict father’s (Kulvinder Ghir) suffocating aspirations for his son, along with the unwanted attentions of the racist skinheads on his estate in suburban Luton. When schoolmate Roops (Aaron Phagura) loans him a couple of Springsteen cassettes, Javed instantly finds a kindred spirit in the American songwriter. Soon, Javed is dressing in double denim, following his dream of becoming a writer and nabbing himself a girlfriend in young activist Eliza (Nell Williams).
The history of pop music in the second half of the twentieth century was essentially a back and forth cross-pollination between the US and UK, from The Beatles and Stones repackaging blues and rock ‘n ‘roll, to the young African-American futurists of ‘80s Detroit who combined their obsession with British synth pop with the 4/4 beat of disco to create Techno. Fitting then that a British movie should delve into the essence of a none more American artist like Springsteen. Comparisons are made between Javed’s home of Luton and Springsteen’s New Jersey, both once thriving industrial boroughs devastated by unemployment in the ‘80s.
When Javed’s father, Malik, falls victim to the recession and loses his job at the local Vauxhall car plant, a stick is thrust between the spokes of Javed’s runaway ambitions. Does he follow his dreams and head North for university in Manchester or stick around and help support his family by taking a soul-crushing factory job? It’s here that Blinded by the Light takes a step back from the exuberant positivity of Springsteen’s American dream iconography to examine the realities of following your aspirations. Springsteen may have gotten out of Asbury Park, but he didn’t have a struggling immigrant family to take care of.
The article continues after this ad
Chadha’s film recognizes too that not everybody shares the same dreams, and that we should understand we don’t have a monopoly on how we should live our lives. Javed’s initial obsession with The Boss gives him a newfound confidence, but it also turns him into something of a narcissist, looking down his nose at the pop music he once enjoyed. Javed has a moment of clarity when he reluctantly accompanies his younger sister to a daytime disco. Initially donning his headphones to shut out the Banghra-infused pop music, Javed looks around and sees hundreds of kids dancing in unfettered exuberance. The headphones come off and he lets himself enjoy the simple pleasure of dance (something few of Springsteen’s songs allow for). Ultimately, the lesson of Blinded by the Light is that culture is a conversation, not a monologue. If that isn’t a message for 2019, I don’t know what is.