“For the ones who had a notion…“
Have you ever experienced a piece of art that felt like it was made for you, specifically, at that exact moment in time? Something that went beyond “I love this” or “I give this 5 stars” and hit closer to “I needed this”, like medicine, like a well-timed letter from a long-lost friend? It’s only happened to me twice in my life; the first time, me and my best friend drove across the bridge into Seaside Heights, New Jersey just as Clarence Clemons‘ mighty saxophone solo crescendoed during Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band‘s “Thunder Road.” It was a golden summer day between high school and college. A bachelor degree’s worth of change waited for us both when we came back across that bridge, troubles that meant nothing at the time to 18-year-olds who could still believe both bridges and sax solos go on forever.
The second time was ten years later and 3,000 miles away, in a mostly-empty Los Angeles screening room, watching Gurinder Chadha‘s Blinded by the Light.
I don’t love to mix personal stories with movie thoughts—”Collider is not your diary” has been a constant refrain since I started working here, especially back when I was asked to scream into a void about the show Gotham—but it’s almost impossible not to when discussing Blinded by the Light. Chadha’s first English-language film since Bend It Like Beckham is that rare piece that traffics masterfully in themes both personal and universal. Based on a memoir by journalist Sarfraz Manzoor—who also co-wrote the script—the film follows Javed (Viveik Kalra), a British-Pakistani teenager navigating life and loneliness in 1987 Luton. (That’s a small town less than two hours from London.) A talented writer and poet, Javed can’t relate to a divided community that hates his race and a strict father (Kulvinder Ghir) who hates his art. A friend, Roops (Aaron Phagura), introduces Javed to the words and sounds of Bruce Springsteen, and suddenly he sees a version of himself that could be bigger than a small town. The light at the end of a tunnel, blinding though it may be.
My name is Vinnie and I come from a small town just a few exits down the parkway from a New Jersey shoreline, so it was basically coded into my DNA from birth that Bruce is part genius, part prophet. I went to Catholic school for 12 years and learned only that A) If God is real I’d like to ask her some questions and B) The only scripture I’ll ever truly need is the song “Badlands.” I’ve been to Asbury Park more times than I can count, a wild place that’s not a quarter wild as it used to be, but I’ll never forget the first time I stood in front of the Stone Pony, the temple at the end of a life-long pilgrimage. Inside, hymns were being screamed over four-chord riffs.
Javed and Roops take a similar journey in Blinded by the Light, a whirlwind montage that whips through Freehold, gets off at Exit 100, makes a pit-stop at Jersey Freeze and then touches back down in Luton. That’s part of Blinded by the Light‘s magic; it always returns home. Chadha and cinematographer Ben Smithard (The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) shoot sing-along sequences like gorgeous, sun-drenched day-dreams; the movie isn’t quite a musical, but it exists in that same heightened space where sometimes music transcends reality and Roops, Javed, and his activist girlfriend Eliza (Nell Williams) can sprint the length of their hometown over the four-minute-and-29-second “Born to Run.” But Chadha always, always snaps back to the waking world, where the color of your skin can be enough to ostracize, white supremacists march the streets, factories close down and even noble dreams go unmet. Blinded by the Light‘s bold (correct) conclusion is that Bruce Springsteen isn’t the answer to anything, he just managed to tap into the fact that the things uniting everyone—sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, assembly line workers, poets, Luton loners, Pakistani immigrants, Asbury burnouts—basically boil down to loneliness and optimism, often at the same time.
In September of 2018, I moved by myself from New Jersey to take a job writing about movies in the shadow of the Hollywood sign. A dream, for sure, and one that’s allowed me to meet some wonderful human beings that I’m lucky, by now, to call friends. But a truth I try desperately to not let sink into pop culture fluff is the fact moving 3,000 miles away from friends, family, a girlfriend, and a dog to a beautiful sprawling wonderland of hills and highways left me feeling acutely, undeniably alone. It still does, all the time. And as a white dude living in America I will never, ever suffer the level of hardship experienced by Javed, never get spit on because of the way I look, my apartment remaining graffiti-free. But I did walk into a movie expecting to love it because I love Springsteen and leaving intensely moved not by the music, but because a character that looks and sounds nothing like me also felt alone and found the same outlet. Blinded by the Light is a movie that oozes empathy, an unapologetically cheesy affirmation that you’re never alone. You don’t have to love, or even like Bruce Springsteen to understand that. One of the key components holding Blinded by the Light together is Javed’s childhood friend Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman), a feather-haired synth-rocker who couldn’t give half a shite for The Boss but connects to Javed all the same. Blinded By the Light is all about connections. It’s about building the only types of bridges that do, in fact, go on forever.
You know how even the songs you love can have lines you never quite learn, the lyrics you only sort’ve half-sing during every spin? Even as a lifelong Springsteen fan I could never make out the first line to the chorus of “The Promised Land.” (Bruce Springsteen is a genius, but my dude is also a mumbler.) The most electric, stirring sequence in Blinded by the Light just happens to have those lyrics beamed above Javed’s head during a thunder storm. Thanks to this movie, I finally learned that line. It couldn’t be more apt:
“The dogs on Main Street howl, because they understand…“