There’s a crucial scene in Blinded by the Light, director Gurinder Chadha’s 1980s coming-of-age movie about a Pakistani teenager growing up in Luton, England, when our hero, Javed (Viveik Kalra), is hanging out at a restaurant with his friend Roops (Aaron Phagura).
The two buddies are minding their own business, at a time when fascists are marching in the streets in the United Kingdom. The duo are hard at work creating their identities as both individuals and first-generation British Muslims, with the aid of an unlikely inspiration: Bruce Springsteen.
Just then, the two teens are made to get out of their seats by a trio of would-be tough-guy racists who announce that this particular table belongs to entitled English white people, not a pair of second-class citizens.
At first, Javed and Roops give in and move quietly away. But then they realize they’ve accidentally left a valued Springsteen VHS tape behind. So Javed springs into ‘What would Bruce do?’ action.
It’s a moment of defiance, soundtracked by “Badlands,” from 1978‘s Darkness on the Edge of Town. Instead of backing down, Javed stands up, takes back what belongs to him, and recites lyrics about “the ones who had a notion, a notion deep inside, that it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive!”
By the time he gets to the part about spitting in the face of these “Badlands,” he’s placed a loogie in the eye of one of his tormentors. It’s a super-earnest moment of defiance in a charming, unafraid-to-be-corny movie full of them, and it’ll be goose pimple-inducing for Springsteen fans in particular.
But it’s also something more than that. Blinded by the Light arrives on the heels of Yesterday, the Danny Boyle-directed confection that stars Himesh Patel as Jack Malik, a failing songwriter of Indian descent who somehow, miraculously, seems to be the only person alive who has heard of the Beatles after a mysterious global blackout.
Taken together, that makes for two summer movies that feature South Asian actors as conduits through which fresh meaning and relevance is found for music, made by classic rock white guys, that is so overly familiar that it’s nigh on impossible to hear it with fresh ears.
Or is it? What Blinded by the Light and Yesterday both do is put their heroes in position to feel the life-changing power of pop music in their own private, highly specific ways and invite the audience to reexperience it though them.
It’s also a reminder that rock-and-roll’s raw and essential power comes from being underdog music made and consumed by outsiders.
That once went for the Beatles themselves — greasers from Liverpool toughened up in the rough clubs of Hamburg, Germany. And Springsteen, too, a hopeless romantic whose “it’s a town full of losers, I’m pulling out of here to win” ambitions were born in the boardwalk backwater of Asbury Park, N.J.
A big reason for rock’s current status of being less central to pop culture — replaced by hip hop as dominant youth music — is rock’s inability to credibly give voice to that rebel yell role on a grand scale.
All the recent blathering on about the 50th anniversary of Woodstock is rooted in that event’s massive scale. Four hundred thousand people announced that the counterculture had become so large it was becoming the dominant culture.
And once that happens, the power of rebellion and insurrection is lost. The depressing way to look at it is that rock’s last gasp of loogie-in-the-eye impudence came with punk and its apotheosis with Nirvana, ending a full 25 years ago.
Does that mean that it’s impossible for the music to be a relevant rabble-rousing force? No, it’s just that to get that jolt, you have to look to music makers who have been historically underrepresented.
In 2019, that often means bands led by women stepping up in a space dominated by dudes for decades.
Excellent examples abound just among Philadelphia bands with new records. Among them: the Marisa Dabice-led punk band Mannequin Pussy, whose Patience mixes punk rock fury with less hurried music befitting its title. The band plays the First Unitarian Church on Sept. 19.
Sheer Mag, the raging ‘70s riff rock band fronted by Christina Halladay, releases its new A Distant Call, which marries brute force with reflective moments, on Aug. 23. They play Union Transfer on Oct. 10.
And another standout music movie of the summer that comes from an outsider’s perspective is Wild Rose, the Jessie Buckley-starring story about a singer in Glasgow who refuses to believe being a world away from Nashville will prevent her from becoming a country star.
Blinded by the Light and Yesterday fit into this theory because both movies upend limiting expectations about who rock music is made for and by.
I don’t want to overstate the two movies’ insurrectionist bent. They’re both commercial enterprises that are a boon for the old white guys whose music they feature.
Since the success of Bohemian Rhapsody, the music industry has been hot on movies that boost the back catalogs of legacy artists, like the Elton John story Rocketman. It can’t be bad for the Beatles or Springsteen to see their music portrayed as having life-changing power for fans decades younger and darker-skinned than themselves.
Yesterday has been (lamely) slagged off for the unrealistic magical premise and rightly criticized for failing to make more of how the world would be culturally changed if there had never been a Beatles.
There’s a subversive idea at its core, though, that the music made by the Beatles rose up from a kind of collective Jungian unconscious, that I was quite taken with.
Once tapped into by the Liverpool lads, it reappears in Yesterday in an alternate universe, in which Ed Sheeran is unfortunately still popular. The Beatles don’t exist, but their songs are still out there in the ether.
And this time, they’re brought to life not by four white males but by a heart-on-his-sleeve, hard-luck Asian troubadour who’s gotten nowhere until he was rescued by the emotional and musical “Help!” the Beatles songs provide.
Blinded by the Light also has fanciful aspects. It’s a quasi-musical in which people on the street are wont to break out in choreographed choruses of “Born to Run” or “Thunder Road.”
But the Bend It Like Beckham director’s movie is grounded in reality. Javed loves Bruce because the Jersey rocker speaks to his soul. He wants to be a writer, and like Springsteen in his often voiced origin myth, has a factory worker father who dismisses his dream. His three 16th birthday wishes: “Kiss a girl, make friends, and get out of this dump.”
Despite the cultural differences, it almost seems geographically fated that Sarfraz Manzoor, the author whose memoir Blinded is based on, would become a Springsteen superfan. The excellent 2007 memoir, which tells a subtler story than the movie, is named after the section of Luton where he grew up. It’s called Greetings From Bury Park.
Javed’s desperation to pull out of there to win is a saga pointed in its 2019 telling. Chadha has spoken about the rise in hate crimes in England after the 2016 Brexit vote shaping the movie’s antiracist message as Javed copes with humiliations like children peeing in his family’s mail slot.
Springsteen’s songs give Javed the faith that could save him, and inspire the Pakistani teenager to raise a fist and declare that he, together with his friends, believes in a promised land. That gesture has been a deeply felt staple among the almost entirely white audiences at Springsteen concerts for decades. But it takes on fresh power as it crosses racial, religious, and cultural borders in Blinded by the Light.