For whom does Bruce Springsteen sing? ‘Blinded by the Light’ offers a dewy-eyed answer

Thursday, September 5, 2019 - 3:53pm

"Blinded by the Light"

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New Line Cinema

“A Pakistani into Springsteen. Now that’s got potential,” sneered the editor of Javed Khan’s (Viveik Kalra, “Next of Kin”) high school newspaper in 1987 Luton, England. Javed had just submitted an article in homage to the American rock legend — or myth, depending on where you stand — Bruce Springsteen.

But I wonder if that is how Warner Bros. responded when “Blinded by the Light,” the story of the empowerment of a working class, British-Pakistani teenager via Bruce Springsteen’s music, was first pitched. And I wonder if the filmmakers would have taken issue with that reductive stance. Still, I wonder if that’s always what it takes — exotic, absurd shock value — to persuade the establishment that an anti-canonical story deserves a platform. No matter the extent of your own cynicism regarding the future of representation in Western media, “Blinded by the Light” still registers as a product of this regime, so it fails to reinvigorate a genre, merely propping up a new story with the old tricks.

Javed can’t find a girlfriend. His parents are conservative and keep usurping his independence, his youthful pleasure-seeking. His high school cafeteria is divided into cliques he calls “tribes,” and he voices-over his uncertainty about where to sit. Sound familiar? Sound like every other high school comedy-drama? By and large, that’s “Blinded by the Light”: endearing but unsophisticated, youthful but unpracticed. 

Still worse, the film distills parts of  Javed’s unique experience into something existing tropes can contain: for instance, it localizes skinheads’ racist, xenophobic violence into the high school bullying trope, which helps conceal the already well-guarded systemic dimension of this violence. A similar film that more successfully broke the mold of high school storytelling is George Tillman Jr.’s (“The Longest Ride”) adaption of Angie Thomas’s book “The Hate U Give,” which not only sought out a new cast of characters, but changed the terms of the high school narrative itself. Starr (Amandla Stenberg, “Everything, Everything”) and her brother bicker over breakfast before their father briefs them on how to behave when a cop stops them. Starr has a white, wealthy boyfriend, but their racially-motivated expectations about each other shape the relationship. None of the social complexities are drowned in the ordinary parts of Starr’s adolescence.

All the same, perhaps “Blinded by the Light” stands out in the way it connects a working-class musician from New Jersey with a working-class British-Pakistani teenager in a raw, comforting, empowering way. Given my experience, I can’t fully appreciate what Springsteen’s music can do, so neither am I in a position to discredit it. But a throwaway line in “Blinded by the Light” stood out to me: “You do know Ronald Reagan listens to him, right?” Javed’s activist girlfriend Eliza (Nell Williams, “London Town”) asks him. While the line is delivered in jest, I couldn’t help but wonder if people of privilege in America hear the same thing — if the skinheads, amid their Thatcherite resurgence in the time of the film, would hear what Javed hears — when Springsteen sings.

Nor could I help thinking of poet and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib’s perspective on Springsteen. In “A Night in Bruce Springsteen’s America,” Abdurraqib regales his experience of a Springsteen concert in New Jersey, days after visiting the place where Michael Brown was killed. “I have been thinking a lot about the question of who gets to revel in their present with an eye still on their future,” the author reflects. Applying this framework to the mythology of Springsteen, Adburraqib adds, “What I understand about The River now that I didn’t before I saw it in New Jersey is that this is an album about coming to terms with the fact that you are going to eventually die, written by someone who seemed to have an understanding of the fact that he was going to live for a long time. It is an album of a specific type of optimism — one not afforded to everyone who listens to it.”

In the world that this film imagines, Javed cashes in on this optimism, repeatedly. It gets him out of his parents’ house, across the Atlantic and, in the end, to his dream school, on the path to his dream career. But I am doubtful it could sustain him forever, and I can instead see it bankrupting him, somewhere outside of the film’s frame. Perhaps within a decade, even, as the War on Terror and Islamophobia began to take a more regional hold, especially in Springsteen’s homeland.

I recalled Abdurraqib’s assessment in almost every instance of Javed’s fiery speeches about Springsteen’s universal messages, but especially when he invoked Springsteen in his pursuit of a girlfriend. I was once told by a boy, whose Bruce fandom easily rivals Javed’s, that Springsteen’s music made him think of me. Before “Blinded by the Light,” I wasn’t sure if I liked that. After seeing it, I’m still uneasy about his association. Our relationship was inappropriate and exploitative in multiple respects, and I paid for it. But now I wonder, how much of it had to do with what he learned from his idol? I don’t think I could match the woman Bruce Springsteen promised him he would find because I was not a figment of a man’s imagination. I was — am — a real person of my own. No romanticized ideal will ever change that. But I don’t know if I will ever fit into Springsteen’s purview that way.

When Javed went off on the American Dream sales pitch in an attempt to convince his conservative father to let him travel to Springsteen’s home state of New Jersey, the people around me in the Ann Arbor theater laughed. If Springsteen danced across the graveyard of the American Dream, its ghost still found its way into his lyrics and ideology. No matter who you are, that ghost — promising reward for hard work regardless of identity, when identity continues to be leveraged against people no matter what work they do — will greet you as soon as Springsteen opens his mouth to rasp the first verse of “Born to Run.” I shook my head and tried to listen to the rest of a sanguine speech I’d heard many times before.