The day after my father died a little over a year ago I walked around New York City, aimlessly. I didn’t know where I was going, or doing, or what I was even supposed to do, really. The only thing that felt right at all was listening to Bruce Springsteen. I think there’s a Springsteen gene that a person either has or they don’t have. But, if you do have it, you know that the lyrics of a Bruce Springsteen song can speak directly to you – either lifting you up or breaking you down, depending on whatever might be needed at that particular moment.
On that day, I listened to “My Hometown,” which is far from my favorite Springsteen song, but on that day it was. As Bruce sings about his father letting young Bruce steer the family car through the streets of Freehold, New Jersey, I thought about my own father letting me do the same thing in Eldon, Missouri. I started weeping, right there on the street, in front of strangers passing by. It felt right. (One nice thing about living in New York City is that the sight of a human being openly weeping on the street probably won’t crack the top ten strangest things a person might see on any given day.)
After the premiere of Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light – which received a rousing standing ovation here at the Sundance Film Festival – I stopped by the afterparty and immediately approached Sarfraz Manzoor, the journalist and writer the film is based on. After the film, on stage, he gave a touching speech about his father, who also died suddenly from a heart attack. Yes, the film is about his relation to the music of Bruce Springsteen, but, at its core, it’s about Manzoor’s father. During the credits, we are informed Manzoor has attended well over 100 Springsteen shows. When I mentioned my 27 shows looked paltry compared to his, Manzoor replied, “It’s not about the number of shows, it’s what a person does with the inspiration after the shows.” What a line. Anyway, Blinded by the Light hit me like a ton of bricks and I love this movie so very much.
Based on Manzoor’s book about growing up a Pakastani kid in Luton, England – and using the music of Springsteen to both cope with the racism he and his family faced, and to dream of getting out of that town (he did) – Blinded by the Light features scenes of the most pure, unadulterated joy I’ve seen on screen in quite a while. God, maybe ever.
Set in 1987, there’s a scene where Javed (Viveik Kalra, a fictionalized version of Manzoor) and his best friend (Aaron Phagura) break into the school radio station, put on “Born to Run,” lock the door, and then the two of them run for their lives down the school hallway, laughing and singing into the streets. Eventually, the scene morphs into a street sing and dance along that serves as both unmitigated joyous triumph and a call to action. It’s easily one of my favorite movie scenes of the past year and will no doubt become a YouTube favorite. (If anyone involved with the marketing of this film is reading this, release that clip to the world. If people see this sequence, they will flock to this movie. The line to the theater will look like the last scene of Field of Dreams.)
Gurinder Chadha, returning to the festival after her breakout Sundance debut, Bend it like Beckham, told the crowd assembled that Springsteen had given them “carte blanche” access to his catalog. And, boy, she did not skimp on that offer. (Though, I was surprised that the movie opens with the Pet Shop Boys song “It’s a Sin.”) Chadha uses 17 Bruce Springsteen songs in a mixture of elated triumph (like the aforementioned “Born to Run” scene), dread (“Jungleland” plays over a scene of violent white supremacists marching through the streets) or inner reflection (often, as Javed listens, the lyrics are presented across the screen to drive the point home). The song that gets the most use isn’t “Born to Run” or the title song from the film, but instead “The Promised Land,” the first song on the second side of Darkness on the Edge of Town. The line from that song, “Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode,” seems to be the underlying theme of the entire film.
I hesitate to say Blinded by the Light is “pure joy,” because this is a film that features skinheads and blatant, horrific racism. But, despite that, this is a movie that wants to make you feel good. Everyone feels like shit at some point in their lives, and for a lot of us, Bruce Springsteen helps us get through. It is a bit of an addiction. It’s hard to explain why I’ve seen him perform as many times as I have (though, I did try once), but I just have to go. His lyrics can speak to some dumb white kid from the Midwest just as much as it spoke to a Pakistani kid living in England. Bruce Springsteen’s music unites people. This movie, Blinded by the Light, wants to unite people. It’s a movie that turns hatred into both joy and a charge. Or, as Springsteen says, “Explode and tear this whole town apart, take a knife and cut this pain from my heart, find somebody itching for something to start.”
Blinded by the Light is a must-see.
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