The premiere of the film “Blinded by the Light” inspired by the life of Sarfraz Manzoor and directed by Gurinder Chadha lit up the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park on August 7th. The cast arrived on the red carpet strewn across the floor of Convention Hall while eager onlookers and press packed the historic building. The city of Asbury Park is a thread that runs through Manzoor’s poignant memoir, Greetings from Bury Park, of which the film is based. And the parallels between the cities of significance to Manzoor’s experience is nothing short of serendipitous especially given the history of race riots from 1970 in Asbury Park from which the city has still to fully recover. Therefore, the event felt at home in the city that cultivated much of the music featured on the soundtrack, while simultaneously fueling the American dreams of writer and rabid Springsteen fan, Manzoor. The choice to place the premiere in Asbury Park proved how genuinely those involved with the film cared for its soul. From beginning to end, the premiere “built a bridge” from Bury Park and Luton to Asbury Park.
Manzoor, Chadha (flanked by her supportive husband and credited co-writer on the film, Paul Mayeda Bergers and two adorable children – son in a sports jacket over a Springsteen shirt and daughter matching Chadha in a sophisticated navy blue lace dress) – and actors Viveik Kalra (Javed) along with Aaron Phagura (Roop) spoke enthusiastically with reporters. They expressed gratitude over the excitement surrounding their endeavor that was ten years in the making. Then, Bruce Springsteen appeared on the carpet with his wife, Patti Scialfa, who was all smiles. Both gave hugs and warm greetings to the cast. Apparently, nobody told Kalra, the lead actor who plays Javed, Manzoor’s character, the Boss was coming. Kalra was overwhelmed with Springsteen’s arrival when I spoke with him moments after he’d fallen to his knees in the middle of the red carpet in front of the musician.
To preface the film’s screening, Chadha spoke giving thanks to those who had contributed as well as Springsteen for his generosity in allowing the film to utilize his music. She mentioned how he had said to her after a private viewing that he appreciated how they “took care” of him and his music. It seems they did not betray his trust with the rare liberty he had given them with his catalogue of music. Perhaps, given Springsteen had read Manzoor’s book long ago, he knew the writer had enormous respect for him and his music. In turn, he seemingly has a mutual respect for Manzoor’s story. The Boss stood briefly in a back orchestra row and playfully threw some popcorn in the air as she praised him. Both he and Scialfa stayed for the entire screening.
The evening culminated into an afterparty in Convention Hall with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes entertaining while Springsteen and Scialfa looked on between eating pizza and socializing with the cast. At some point, the two appeared on the stage. All in attendance were treated to a typical Jersey jam when the husband and wife duo joined their longtime musician mates on stage for at least four songs, including “634-5789”.
The film’s story follows Javed, an adolescent Pakistani boy struggling to find his identity amid pressure from his traditional Pakistani family, liberal UK high school peers, and rising racism in his community during the 1980s. It also illustrates the influence of current politics on the young person’s mind. It highlights what we sometimes overlook, how politics infiltrates the individual at micro and macro level. This is evident during key moments in the film when Javed is faced with personally confronting a neo-Nazi at the same time his community is dealing with racist attacks in their neighborhoods and mosques. These forces combine into a combustible moment when Roop, who Javed befriends over their mutual immigrant-outcast roles, introduces Javed to the music of Bruce Springsteen. On one particular night when Javed’s father’s lecturing has pushed him to the brink, the boy pops the Springsteen cassette into his walkman and escapes in a way he never could. Already showing promise with literary skills, Javed latches onto the urgent lyrics that speak “directly” to him. One of the most affecting lines from the movie comes when Roop tells Javed, “Springsteen is a direct line to all that’s true in this Sh-tty world.”
The writers don’t shy away from the importance of the cultural climate and its impact on people, young people in particular. The shaping of an individual is illustrated so artfully in the film as we see the influences of place, culture, politics, family and music on a boy who could be any one of us. We can find ourselves in the film if we merely replace, say, Springsteen lyrics with Beck lyrics, or an overbearing dad with an absent dad, whatever your individual circumstances involve. While the variable may look a bit differently, we are able to see how we, too, became who we are as a result of these variables. We are also able to empathize with Javed when he dons the headphones and tunes it all out. The music that “saved” us, that “spoke” to us, may be varied, but we know that feeling. It is a feeling that someone finally understands because they have been where we are. The power of a lyric, the tone of the voice, in this case, Springsteen’s, that rubs up against the one of the nagging father or bully offers redemption.
Cinematically, the choice to wrap lyrics around Javed during moments of epiphany work well. The shots add a certain psychological effect that enhances Javed’s feeling of relief. The words swimming around his head and body serves as catharsis. These moments in the film almost felt spiritual in the way they swept away the negativity he is bombarded with on a daily basis whether he’s encountering racism on the street or being oppressed within his own home. The songs in their entirety also adds meaning and depth to the film. So often, a film offers a snippet from a song here and there without ever developing it into the story. This film is different. The story embodies the music in the same the music embodies the story. Springsteen’s story, Javed’s story, our story.
“Blinded by the Light” tackles a myriad of important themes, one of them being the struggle for identity, we asked the Director, Gurinder Chadha, if she kept her children in mind while working on her vision for the film. With her two gorgeous young ones at her side at the Premiere, she remarked, “Absolutely. I’m a woman, I’m a filmmaker, and I’m a mother. Everything that I do has to mean something for my kids and making the world feel better because, as a mother, I want the world to be a better place.” Given scenes such as when Javed and Roop take over the college radio station to play “Born to Run”, perhaps, a bit of this utopian imagining of how everyone comes together in a Grease-like sing along, running through the streets all smiles, is some of the hopefulness Chadha wishes to instill in a younger generation. While it is unlikely, it is a refreshing balance to the daily fear and distrust they encounter day to day. These scenes provide an anti-thesis to all that is wrong in the world, which is amplified by the media whilst also highlighting the worst of humanity. This film dares to illuminate possibilities by fleshing out the best of humanity despite the undeniable truths that racism and discrimination still exist. Uncomfortable scenes wherein Javed and Roop are forced to move to a different table because a few white supremists bully them to do so become digestible with a moment when the characters decide enough is enough and feel empowered by the lyrics of “Badlands” to stand up for themselves. Again, is singing Springsteen out loud in the face of bullies and continuing as they run through the mall plausible? Probably not. However, it is the power of possibility and the “what if” that makes these scenes so entertaining. We are rooting for them, the bullied immigrant, the kid whose dad doesn’t understand him. If we haven’t experienced it ourselves, we’ve felt empathy for a story we’ve heard recently wherein an immigrant has been treated badly. These scenes become redeeming, not only for the characters, but for ourselves as well.
When asked about the parallels between his difficult relationship with his father and Bruce’s relationship with his own father Manzoor spoke candidly on the red carpet, “…..I got a sense of his relationship with his father with “Adam Raised a Cain” and “Independence Day” but it was only when he opened up in the book where I saw the real parallels. There’s a scene near the end of the film that kind of echoes those parallels and makes it really clear.” This scene is a powerful, evocative scene that, again, is relatable regardless of the ethnicity of the viewer’s family. While it provides closure to the story, as these full-circle scenes usually do, it is in the words, the writing where the viewer is given something a bit different than has been done in a feature film.
For most films, the soundtrack is a nice complement to a few scenes. In “Blinded by the Light”, however, the soundtrack is another character. Its strong importance to the film is that it propels the story while also being a catalyst for the story. Javed would not retrieve his writing from the wind he threw it out into if not for “Promised Land”. The protagonist would not get the girl if not for “Born to Run”. The dichotomy of the superficial, light-hearted music at the time versus the depth of the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen could not have been illustrated if “It’s a Sin” was not played during the time Javed was hanging out with Matt. Springsteen’s new song, “I’ll Stand by You” (meant for a Harry Potter movie originally) binds a myriad of feelings for the characters. Rounded out by “Ode to Javed”, Javed’s poem, the soundtrack serves as a reminder of the importance of self-expression. It is vital.
Through Manzoor’s inspirational writing style that captures immediacy and significance, coupled with Chadha’s vision, “Blinded by the Light”’s film and soundtrack enlighten and uplift at a time we need it most. The complexities of the film will not be lost on even the resistant curmudgeon you drag to theatre. Chadha’s direction doesn’t allow the viewer to look away, turn a blind eye. In fact, the film’s stark candor in presenting the themes of racism and struggle for identity, wherein even well-meaning parents aren’t let off the hook, is refreshing in a current society that relishes illusion. Esquire magazine announced this year that Springsteen “is the voice America needs right now.” It is fair to say that “Blinded by the Light” is the film America, and the world, needs right now. To answer your question…Yes, even if you aren’t a “Bruce fan.”
“Blinded by the Light” opens in theatres across the US on August 16th