When filmmaker Gurinder Chadha — director of the Bruce Springsteen musical Blinded by the Light — does a local press tour, she doesn’t mess around.
When I talk to her, she’s having lunch at the Rittenhouse Hotel with her family, and husband and daughter are decked out in Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris T-shirts. They’re all famished from having run the Rocky steps — Chadha is happy to show you the video. For Chadha this is more of a sacred pilgrimage than a press obligation.
She’s a director who doesn’t want to make a movie unless it’s specifically about a place, and what she loves about the original Rocky is the way it was so steeped in the physical reality of ’70s Philadelphia. It’s the same way her own Bend It Like Beckham was vividly located in the Hounslow neighborhood of London, and the way her new film gives viewer a strong time-and-place sense of the British town of Luton, where in the 1980s, a British teen, son of Pakistani immigrants, found his dead-end life changed by Springsteen’s music.
“Whenever I go to a city, I think of the movies that have been shot there. And whenever somebody sends me a script to read, I always ask myself, where is this taking place? It’s the first question. Because you don’t want it to be some generic town where you end up shooting wherever the tax credit is. You want that sense of place, that sense of the city as a character. Hence, Rocky. Or even Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia. You tell people where the movie takes place, and you’re telling the audience a lot about the characters,” said Chadha, who “holidayed” in Asbury Park for a couple weeks before shooting Blinded by the Light, to get a sense of Springsteen’s roots.
“Probably my favorite, in terms of movies about music? Straight Out of Compton. Because it was so specific and so bitingly political. Where does this music comes from? Where do these words come from? From a specific place, and from people have to express themselves to get out of that space. That’s what Straight Out of Compton does.”
Luton, in the Thatcher-era Britain of Blinded by The Light, is a factory town. Immigrants come there to work in the auto plants, there is tension between the arrivals and the locals, some of whom are National Front skinheads who abuse teens like Javed (Viveik Kalra), a young man who has enough problems at home with his traditionalist father.
This all registers strongly in the film, as does the cultural displacement of Javed, a budding writer who can’t find words to express his feelings until one day a buddy plays Springsteen’s music. Suddenly he’s listening to someone sing about trying to “find one face that ain’t lookin’ through me,” and Javed is, well, blinded by the light.
There is some of the music and movement of a traditional movie musical, but Chadha wanted to push genre boundaries. She also wanted dramatize the impact of Springsteen’s lyrics on budding writer Javed (the movie is based on the memoir of journalist/author Sarfraz Manzoor, who cowrote the script with Chadha and her Bend it Like Beckham collaborator Paul Mayeda Berges). To that end, she uses animation to show a swirl of words around his head as he listens.
“I really wanted to show that connection to what he was hearing and what he was feeling.
Channeling those connections to Springsteen’s music was easy for Chadha and Manzoor, who’ve both been fans for decades.
“He’s like a good friend who I can turn to, who is always going to have wise words for me,” said Chadha. “And he’s writing about the kind of people I like to make movies about. Ordinary people who have been laid off. Ordinary people who come home after fighting their country’s wars. Migrants. People in need. And just, you know, the idea of having food on the plate, the dignity of working, and that to me is a bloody human right," she said. "Springsteen says, no one wins unless we all win, right? That’s what appeals to me.”
Her love of the Boss is surpassed by that of Manzoor, who’s seen Springsteen in concert more than a hundred times, including a couple of times in Philly. He’s been to so many that Springsteen began to recognize him in crowds. When Springsteen read Manzoor’s memoir, he loved it, and was excited and eager to grant his blessing, including giving the low-budget production permission to use 19 of his songs.
Manzoor also hit Philly with Chadha just after a screening in Asbury Park — his first stop when he visited the States as a teen — that was attended by the Boss himself, who surprised the crowd by performing. The whole adventure is like the culmination of some impossible dream.
“It’s a fairy tale, and I know that’s a cliché, but it’s true, isn’t it? A 16-year-old kid grows up in a place where he has no reason to think that anything would happen that was different — literally everyone I knew were taxi drivers or worked in factories. So there was no reason to expect anything different. And as a result of hope and faith and music and a bit of talent, I get to be a journalist and write a book, and Springsteen tells you that he likes the book, and they make a little movie of it, and Warner Bros. and New Line pay $15 million for it, and suddenly there are posters on Sunset Boulevard and on Broadway, and the culmination of this is that 29 years after that kid first went to Asbury Park he’s back there, in the convention center to watch a film of his life, and Springsteen, his inspiration, graces the stage.