Tory Days: ‘Blinded by the Light’

By Anwen Crawford
Bruce Springsteen provides more than the soundtrack in this Thatcher-era coming-of-age film

Blinded by the Light

For better or – more often – for worse, the costume drama defines mainstream British cinema, and Thatcher-era stories have become so commonplace as to constitute their own sub-genre within the field. Perhaps we can blame the success of Billy Elliot, which, in 2000, seemed far enough away in time from its setting, the 1984–85 miners’ strike, to be welcomed as a fable, the moral of which did nothing to challenge Thatcher’s own favoured spirit of individualist triumph. You, too, can succeed against the odds with a rare combination of preternatural gifts and hard labour! Or, as a friend once put it: Dance, prole, dance.

Since then, we’ve seen versions of Thatcher-era skinheads (This Is England, 2006), Thatcher-era activism (Pride, 2014) and, naturally, of Thatcher herself (The Iron Lady, 2011). Some of these films are pretty good – Shane Meadows, in particular, coaxed vivid performances out of his young cast in This is England and its television sequels – but all of them are so impeccable in their efforts to reproduce the era that a viewer can’t ever forget they’re watching a facsimile. It does something to the material, which, even if it’s concerned with hardship, and it generally is, renders that hardship beautiful and sealed, like a gift mailed forward from the past rather than a disturbance that might interrupt our present-day enjoyment of it.

The latest film to make the same mistakes, and once again enjoyably, is Blinded by the Light. It’s directed by Gurinder Chadha, best known for her success-against-the-odds comedy Bend It Like Beckham, from 2002. Blinded by the Light has all the requisite Thatcheresque elements – mass unemployment, far-right violence, the kind of hideously patterned acrylic jumpers that now sell for five times what they were worth then – but with the music of Bruce Springsteen serving as its soundtrack, commentary and scripture. Springsteen was the premier chronicler of the indignities dealt out to common folk during the two-term presidency of Thatcher’s great political ally, Ronald Reagan, and he had – still has – no real musical analogue in Britain. How could Springsteen’s highway dramas elucidate life in a country the size of a postage stamp? Chadha’s film tries to answer the question.

Set in the southern English town of Luton – the kind of listless place where no one goes unless they have to – Blinded by the Light is adapted from a memoir by British journalist and author Sarfraz Manzoor, who co-wrote the film’s screenplay. It’s 1987, and teenager Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra) is living on a local council estate, doing what teenagers do: arguing with his parents and failing to get laid. Javed’s mother, Noor (Meera Ganatra), is a seamstress who does piecework for a meagre living, and his father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), is a long-term employee at the Vauxhall Motors factory, until forced redundancy throws him and rest of the family into an emotional and economic crisis. With his authority threatened, Javed’s dad doubles down on parental discipline, while cursing the day he ever left Pakistan.

At this crucial juncture, Javed is lent some Springsteen cassettes by his school friend Roops (Aaron Phagura), who assures him, in the ardent way of a disciple, that Bruce “is a direct line to all that is true in this shitty world”. So it proves for Javed, whose literary dreams and existential restlessness are given new fuel by his conversion to The Boss (“the boss of us all”, Roops adds, cutely). And what a conversion it is, taking place in the middle of a storm while Javed paces the sad concrete of the housing estate and feels “The Promised Land” rip through him. Lyrics blow across the screen like leaves in the wind.

From then on, Blinded by the Light is overtaken – even overwhelmed – by the intensity of Javed’s fandom. He writes on Springsteen for the school newspaper (“a thousand words of closely argued adulation”, sniffs the editor, and, well, I’ve heard worse definitions of criticism), speaks in Springsteen lyrics to baffled friends and family, dresses in denim and plaid, and plasters his walls in Springsteen posters. (Springsteen being the working man’s hottie that he is, this lends a particular and not unwelcome homoeroticism to Javed’s decorating choices.) Scenes of dreary everyday life in Luton – whether they be picket lines outside the factory gates or harassment by racist skinheads at the local caff – begin to effloresce into all-singing, all-dancing Springsteen tributes. I never knew there might be such a thing as too much Springsteen until this film made me flail beneath the load of its affection for the man and his music. When you wish the folks onscreen would stop singing “Thunder Road”? That, my friends, is too much Springsteen.

Nevertheless, in its devotion, Blinded by the Light does something to convey the sheer desperate quality of obsessive fandom. The rock ’n’ roll bug tends to sink its fangs deepest into those who would make the least likely rock stars imaginable – I believe I speak from personal experience, here – and the bitten may never quite recover. But they may, as Javed does, find through music a commitment to living even if – or especially if – life itself is ordinary. As The Boss himself sings: badlands, you gotta live it every day.

Yes, there’s joy here, and a host of minor comic characters to colour Kalra’s sweet-natured performance as Javed. Everyone’s got the right hair and outfit for their part in this conscientious period reconstruction, including the self-important school DJ in his pork-pie hat, and Javed’s best friend, Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman), who sports frosted tips and a fake tan. Rob Brydon even shows up in a mullet as Matt’s dad, inhabiting his role with a degree of self-amusement that’s entirely distracting. But some of the film’s grace notes are properly droll, like Javed’s younger sister Shazia (Nikita Mehta) chopping onions while wearing goggles, or Javed’s dad consistently and mistakenly referring to Springsteen as Jewish (“very successful people”). In a tonal contrast, the racism directed at the Khan family is shown to be a frequent and exhausting occurrence, whether it takes the form of physical violence or, more often, is expressed in hostile looks and remarks.

Something’s missing, though; some devastation not unique to the Thatcher years but vivid during them, and not remedied by any person’s one-in-a-hundred victory over material circumstances. Javed leaves Luton eventually: of course he does, for no one makes a film like this about getting left behind. His parting Springsteen philosophy is that “no one wins unless everybody wins”, which is laudable, but doesn’t really touch the darkness that sits at the heart of Springsteen’s own best songs. These songs attest that no one without power wins at all, not in this world – organised as it is for the victory of a few – but that they go on living, anyway. Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true?

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

Blinded by the Light

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