When people talk about something being “timeless,” what do they mean? Are they referring to the aesthetic? To the sound? What about the structure? It’s all of these things and none of these things as timelessness refers to the innate ability of the thing to go beyond the now into the forever. It’s why Shakespeare’s plays so easily translate into modern tales, no matter the time and place of adaptation. It’s why the colors fancied in ancient Africa and the Middle East are still sought after today. It’s why the words of a young man from New Jersey in 1975 can travel the globe and into the future, inspiring Sarfraz Manzoor, a Pakistani teen living in 1987 Luton, England, to find the strength within himself to follow his dreams. That teen grew to be a journalist, a documentary filmmaker, and author of memoir Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Roll, which inspired the Gurinder Chadha-directed adaptation Blinded by the Light, now available on home video. Chadha’s Blinded by the Light is an uplifting tale of personal strength, the enduring sense of youthful revolt, and that no matter the time or place, our private pains are universal.
Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra) wants nothing more than to be a writer. When he’s not writing lyrics for best friend Matt’s (Dean-Charles Chapman) band, he’s writing poems about the pain in the world and in his heart. Despite years of filling notebooks with his words, he believes himself to be a poor talent, destined to do as his father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), wishes and study economics in pursuit of a wealth and prominence. After an accidental meeting with fellow classmate Roops (Aaron Phagura), Javed is introduced to the music of Bruce Springsteen, an artist deemed unpopular in a landscape of Debbie Gibsons and Flocking Seagulls. Somehow, though, Javed is transfixed by Bruce’s words, feeling seen for the first time in his life, inspiring within him the strength to pursue his dreams.
To say that I connected with Blinded by the Light is an understatement. Much like Javed felt seen for the first time in his life by the music of Bruce Springsteen, that he possessed a sense of drive and purpose, is much like I felt upon hearing the words of Aerosmith, Queen, and Meatloaf. Their music instilled within me a sense of connection that transcended my small Virginia town, reaching back into the ‘70s and early ‘80s and stirring my soul. Chadra brilliantly puts this same feeling on display in countless ways throughout Blinded. It’s in the way the already internal Javed carries himself with more confidence as he identifies with the words and meaning of the lyrics. It’s in the way the perpetually Walkman-carrying Javed trades his usual cassette rotation for any of Bruce’s albums, serving as a means of living inside the support system he longs for but doesn’t have in his everyday life. It’s in the way Javed dresses himself with a likeness to his hero, effectively creating armor to defend himself against the harshness of the era (rising joblessness and the hatred of neo-Nazi organization The National Front). Undoubtedly, countless teens across the world throughout time have felt invisible at one time or another until something inspired them, not to cut loose, but to take positive action. If Chadra had only focused on the physical to communicate Javed’s changes, it would have been enough, but she takes it a step further in the most wonderful way: she makes the internal external through the delicate use of staged visual elements. As a literal storm rages outside, Javed puts on Bruce for the first time and, as the camera pulls in to a tight close-up, the lyrics slowly appear on either side of his face. Kalra’s physical performance is strong enough to convey Javed’s internal delight, but the addition of the words create a focal point for the audience so that we, too, may join his journey. So that we, too, can go on this musical excursion together. As the lyrics begin to literally spin around his head, Chadra communicates Javed’s internal excitement as each emotional lock is broken. She continues to use this tactic in various points of the film, creating a deep connection between the lyrics, Bruce’s voice, and the significance to Javed. Unlike musical biopic Rocketman which uses the songs of Elton John to tell his story, Chadra brilliantly uses the music of Bruce Springsteen to tell Javed’s, to give words to what Javed can’t say until he is ready to say them. By tapping into that feeling of connection which music inspires in so many, the emotions with Javed’s story become ever heightened and frequently devastating.
There is, however, something off about Blinded by the Light which diminishes it’s glow quite a bit. This is certainly a matter of subjectivity, but a memoir should be one of truth if it’s to maintain its integrity. Chadra beautifully captures the truth of the pressures of a young Pakistani man caught in the struggle between old traditions and modernity, something which Kalra and Ghir portray without deviating into schmaltz, as well as the desire of the young to have their life mean something. In every scene of the film, from beginning to end, there’s a growing sense of potential desperate to grow and escape. Blinded by the Light is, truly, emotionally powerful in that way. But there’s a problem which becomes clearer when the audience steps away from the film and explores the special features. Contained within the home release are two featurettes, “Memoir to Movie” and “The Most Crazy Thing,” as well as a few deleted and extended sequences. There’s little of extreme significance in the cut sequences, but they do offer nice alternate moments. The brief featurettes, though, are where the cracks form for this reviewer. It’s not in the presentation of the behind the scenes or anything about Chadra or Manzoor specifically (they are clearly passionate individuals whose perspectives of the story are perfectly in-sync), it’s that the details of the film take on new meaning with new information. So where’s the problem? A memoir is a story recounting the details of a life using either personal experience or historical accounts. I know I can’t remember every conversation I’ve ever had, so there is some leniency offered to get the audience from Point A of a film to Point B. The issue presents itself as Chadra explains that the love interest played by Nell Williams never existed. Never mind the fact that the story is centered on Javed, not author Manzoor, which begs the question of why was the name changed at all; but discovering that a character is created to introduce other narrative elements to explore chips away at the integrity of the film. So when Chadra shares the sweet story of how Manzoor and she first spoke with Bruce about adapting the book into the film and she says that they, “needed to come up with a story to Bruce’s liking,” a certain amount of apprehension crawls into the back of your brain. There is literally no question as to the significance of Bruce Springsteen’s music on the life of Manzoor or how emotionally powerful Chadra’s film is, owing to her ability as a person to understand the culture and as a director to capture the truth in each scene, but there becomes a question as to the truth of events, particularly when it doesn’t take a great deal of research to determine that Manzoor has a brother, yet Javed’s presented as the sole male child, a narrative choice likely selected to amplify familial pressures of social responsibility.
Despite several questions which undermine the integrity of Blinded by the Light, there’s no doubt that the film will emotionally devastate anyone who’s felt like Javed, who’s felt underseen or underserved, alone and isolated, even in public spaces, who, with a simple lyric, suddenly found themselves apart of a community which understood them. Under the frequently imaginative direction from Chadra, Blinded by the Light becomes more than a tale of an outsider coming into his own, it becomes a timeless cinematic journey of the senses. She captures what it means to be found and the strength that comes from the feeling. It doesn’t mean that everything will always work out, as even the script can’t work miracles on hard truths, but Blinded does inspire hope. Something tells me that, for Manzoor, The Boss, and his fans, that is enough.
Update, 2:03p 11/18/19:
Memoir author and screenplay co-writer Sarfraz Manzoor reached out this morning to offer some great context to some of the concerns brought up in the home release review. In his comments, he offers explanations absent in the special features.
Blinded By The Light Home Release Bonus Features
Blinded By The Light Blu-ray contains the following special features:
- Memoir to Movie
- The Most Crazy Thing
- Deleted Scenes
Blinded By The Light DVD contains the following special features:
- Memoir to Movie
Available on digital beginning October 22nd, 2019.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD beginning November 19th, 2019.
Final (Film) Score: 3.5 out of 5.