When I first mentioned to a friend a few years back that I harboured a deep, timeless love for Bruce Springsteen, her reaction was much the same as those of young Javed’s (Viviek Kalra) are in Gurinder Chadha’s 1980’s-set Blinded By The Light. “Springsteen?!” she sputtered, “isn’t he a bit, you know, old-fashioned?” In a similar fashion, most of Javed’s friends in Chadha’s chaste coming-of-ager scoff at the mention of Boss-worship and dismiss Springsteen as a relic of bygone times; a traditional rocker whose cassettes belong in their dads’ collections. For them, he surely has no place in an era now dominated by synths and colour clashes.
Javed’s family and friends alike wonder, what could a singer from New Jersey concerned with the falsehood of the American dream possibly have to say to a sixteen-year-old Pakistani boy from Luton? What those around Javed fail to realise, however, is that Javed is also a blue-collar poet — a master of detailing the monotony of living out your years in a small town, just like Springsteen. When we first meet Javed, it’s 1987 and Thatcher’s cuts have led to mass unemployment across Britain. Frustration festers in Luton, and he writes tirelessly in the hopes of reaching the kind of ‘promised land’ that The Boss spent song after song mythologizing on Darkness On The Edge of Town. While Javed retreats to his room to let his anguishes and dreams spill onto the page, his father (Kulvinder Ghir — often multi-faceted and wonderfully nuanced) reminds him that words won’t pay the bills, as the National Front storm the streets outside in what Springsteen would call a ‘death waltz.’
Javed is a mirror of Springsteen in the late sixties and seventies — a disenfranchised, disillusioned young man, haunted by the images of poverty around him and terrified by the possibility of a future confined to the borders of a dying town. Where Springsteen observed and critiqued the needless violence of the Vietnam War and the American imperialism sold to the working-classes as patriotism, Javed laments on the steady rise of the National Front under a Conservative government that scapegoats the marginalised: the trade unionists, Muslims, and Pakistanis alike. Neither the sources of Springsteen’s nor Javed’s anger feel like remnants of the past — simply reminders of times that we have long since progressed from — particularly as Boris Johnson’s government edges further towards being hard right with each passing day. Javed and Bruce are one, along with anyone ignored and maligned by the powers at large. Blinded By The Light is at its best when it makes its social commentary its core focus, such as when ‘Jungleland’ — Springsteen’s epic study of his hometown and all its warts –—plays over the climax of an NF demonstration as Javed watches, while those he loves “wind up wounded, and not even dead.” The scene indeed resembles a street on fire, in parallel with Springsteen’s poor, post-war surroundings.
Where there are sharp addresses of socio-political barriers in Blinded By The Light, there are also insistences of great joy, and Chadha’s film is littered with more than enough moments of sweet-natured comedy to give it charm. Just as Chadha once positioned football as a salvation for Bend It Like Beckham’s Jess, here she presents Springsteen’s music as a balm for Javed. For every period of love, conflict, and heartache that Javed undergoes in his teenage years, Bruce is there. If it’s romantic passion that Javed is having his first taste of, then ‘Thunder Road’ is there to guide him. If the desire to escape the ills of his hometown is greater than ever, then Javed has ‘Born To Run’ ready to remind him that Springsteen, too, hailed from a place that would have ripped “the bones from his back,” had he not broke free. Bruce is omnipresent for Javed; a demigod whose work appears to have been written especially for this one lost boy.
Blinded By The Light often pedals an unabashed belief in the restorative power of music but is never naïve enough to suggest that it can totally heal the wounds left by the kind of racism, economic inequality, and familial tensions that Javed faces. Chadha knows, music — not even Springsteen’s transcendent lyricism — cannot solve everything. To find a voice that appears to have felt everything that you have, though, and that seems to have listened to your every thought is sometimes all the reassurance that one needs to remind themselves that escape doesn’t lie too far away. Bruce will be there until Javed, at least, walks in the sun.