‘I’ ON CULTURE
Britain has produced four films in the last year dealing with the impact of rock music on people. All have been at least pretty good. Blinded by the Light is even better than that. It deals with issues of racism and family for a young man obsessed with the music (and perhaps even more to the point, the lyrics) of legendary rocker Bruce Springsteen. The film was inspired by the life of journalist Sarfraz Manzoor and his love of the works of Springsteen. Manzoor was a co-author of the film.
Javed (Viviek Kalra) lives in Luton, England, as part of a Pakistani family who fled that country due to war. He lives with parents Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) and Noor (Meera Ganatra) as well as a couple of sisters. He loves rock music and feels more a part of British society in some ways than from his homeland. His greatest hope is to escape by going to college.
But even at college, his father finds ways to embarrass him. Then his life changes when the only other Pakistani at the school introduces him to Springsteen’s music, describing it as “the key to all that is true in this #$%& world.” Javed develops his writing skills under the guidance of teacher Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell) and even falls in love with activist Eliza (Nell Williams). He faces terrible racism, including violence against himself and his family. His father is laid off from work; the head of the school newspaper will not even read his work. That is when he turns to Springsteen. Inspired by “the boss,” he returns to work and begins to be appreciated, although not by his father. However, the songs inspire him to stand up for himself and even to ask Eliza out on a date.
The film spends much time examining the sorry state of race relations in 1980s England, but it becomes clear that Javed, now inspired, is becoming more forceful, thinking more for himself. He even gets an internship at the local newspaper. He begins to get recognition, but the outright racism constantly moves front and center. Eventually, Javed gets a chance to go to New Jersey for a writing program, not far from where Springsteen grew up. That leads to a family split.
Some of the racist elements of British society were brought up a bit in Bohemian Rhapsody, another film about a foreign-born Brit influenced by rock music. Yet it was quite muted, limited to a few places at the very beginning and quickly forgotten as the band Queen became a major force. Here it stands front and center.
The most fascinating element is how music seems to transcend boundaries. It was the working class connection, as well as the dreams of Springsteen, that affected Javed so deeply. Some critics have decried “cultural imperialism” as groups “borrow and then change” elements of other cultures, but these cultural transactions have a way of uniting people far more than dividing them. Freddy Mercury was a Parsee who became a rock god and front man for a major band in Bohemian Rhapsody. Working class Reginald Dwight became the flamboyant Elton John in Rocketman. Fictional character John Malik was of a South Asian background in the Beatles homage film Yesterday, but it made no difference in the film. At this time in world history, coming together is far more important than finding reasons for division. All hail rock ’n’ roll!
The cast is uniformly good. Kalra really inhabits his part — not easy because of all its complexity. He had to move through almost dream-like music sections into dealing with the horror of open racism. But he dominates. Ghir is also very good as the father. It would be easy to turn the part into a caricature. But his emotions come through, both his anger and his love. Atwell is, as usual, classy. She turns a small part into a pivotal one. I also liked Williams in a role that could well have turned into a bit of “radical mean girl” but stayed very human. Everyone played a strong role in a very good ensemble cast.
I enjoyed this film. Yes, I admit hearing Springsteen’s music would help any film I see, but the story of how one man’s music can impact someone else to change and to grow is a very strong theme.
This is one of those good films you should see.