Bruce Springsteen begins his 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town with these words…
Well, lights out tonight
Trouble in the heartland
Got a head on collision
Smashin’ in my guts, man
I’m caught in a cross fire
That I don’t understand
Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) sets her new film, Blinded By the Light, in 1987 Britain, and she sets it to the sound of Springsteen. And what’s she’s hoping for — and this is a film that is fueled by hope — is that her film speaks Bruce’s language, Bruce’s commitment and passion:
But there’s one thing I know for sure, girl
I don’t give a damn
For the same old played out scenes
Baby, I don’t give a damn
For just the in-betweens
Honey, I want the heart, I want the soul
I want control right now
You better listen to me, baby
Her success in doing so is mixed, but there’s never a doubt where her heart is, where her intentions lie, and how wide open is her embrace for her audience and for the power of music and film.
Just like at a Springsteen concert.
Javed (Viveik Kalra), a meek, first generation Pakistani-English teen, is trying to navigate the shoals of school and home; friendship and family; English culture and Pakistani culture. The classic immigrant story. He relies primarily on meekness and submission, even against those bigots who taunt and threaten him, but especially with authority figures, particularly his rule-the-roost father.
Then a Sikh stranger, a schoolmate, sees his struggle to find both himself and his place in the world, and slips him the key — Springsteen. Specifically, cassettes of Born in the USA and Darkness on the Edge of Town.
(For Springsteen devotees — and I have to admit that is me — the choice of that combination of albums is significant. Born in the USA is his most accessible and commercial album, his most popular and the one where his personal angst and existentialism is dressed up in the brightest and cheeriest of settings and music; Darkness on Edge of Town, in contrast, is his most naked and bare-bones cry of pain, disappointment, hope, and passion).
Once Javed plugs in and hears the Boss’ siren cry, he is transformed. Just like that! Here is his voice, his world.
Of course, the film keeps playing on the anachronism of a American rockstar from New Jersey speaking so directly to a Pakistani-English teen, but what the film sets out to do is shatter the restricting notion of anachronism and replace it with the ideal of the universal.
And if there’s a badge this film longs to wear, it’s idealism.
The question I left the theater asking, however, and one that I continue to ask, is whether idealism still speaks to a Trumpian and Brexitian world. Are things so dark, so cynical, that one can barely see the light, let alone be blinded by it?
Director Gurinder Chadha certainly puts her bets on idealism. There isn’t a hint of irony in her presentation of Sarfraz Manzoor ’s memoir. Rather it’s heartfelt, even earnest, in a wonderfully Spielbergian way.
For instance, one way the film dramatizes that differences can lead to universalism is through period. And nothing says period more than music and the fashion that grows out it.
The film is set during the transition from the mascara-caked, draping locks of the New Romantics (Culture Club, etc.) to the Synth-Pop of Duran Duran and the Fine Young Cannibals.
The flannel, denim and leather of Springsteen was not appreciated among the young. That is, with the exceptional of Javed and his Sikh buddy. And they exist in a delicious Bollywood world of the Boss.
It’s in those musical moments in the film, when Bruce’s lyrics swirl around Javed’s head and float across the screen, where street fairs become flash mobs of Dancers in the Dark, that the movie is at its absolutely most delightful and enrapturing. These scenes both ground the film in the truth of the heart and the street and launch it into the movie musical stratosphere. They are as wonderful and elevating as any of the numbers in La La Land.
It’s Springsteen’s music, of course, that provides the fuel for both the street race and the liftoff, but it is Viveik Kalra’s performance — and this is true for every moment he’s on screen, which is pretty much the entire film — that carries the film. He is spot-on and a pleasure to watch.
The problem, and this is nearly inevitable when a movie mixes genres (in this case, Bollywood Musical/High School Dramedy/Social Problem Film) is that the results, and the acting, is uneven. Javed’s father and his girl friend’s parents are overdone, but perhaps that’s just the High School Dramedy trope at work. In the end, the connection we feel for Javed overrules all inconsistencies and wins our hearts.
And winning our hungry hearts is just what this film sets out to do.
But — and here I ask the question again — can our hearts be won in the times we currently suffer through? The film connects its actions and characters to the present moment, through the economic hardships suffered by the working class, the anti-immigrant sentiments, as well as the presence of Neo-Nazis marching in the streets. But if the film is going to heal, to offer hope, to lift us over the walls of division and cynicism that surrounds us, then it must move from analogy to activator.
When the music is playing it does just that. A little less so between songs.
Yet, I wonder if this film, if Springsteen’s music, will appeal across demographics. As a 64 year-old, uber-Springsteen fan, it spoke right to me. I think everyone will fall for Javed, but does Bruce still speak to the masses?
I remember the night that Ronald Reagan won the White House. It was the night, Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town tour played Phoenix. He came onto the stage, announced Reagan’s win, and then in an act of resistance, protest and hope, he broke into Badlands:
Well, lights out tonight
Trouble in the heartland…
Badlands, you gotta live it everyday
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you’ve gotta pay
Keep pushin’ ’til it’s understood
And these badlands start treating us good
Today, Reagan seems like a level-headed statesman, beloved even by the working class that Springsteen speaks from, to and about. In a Trump America, will the old connection fire? Will Springsteen’s music ignite the spark? Blinded By the Light is certainly hoping so.