Blinded by the light

Luton, 1987. Unemployment is rising and Margaret Thatcher is well on her way to a third election victory (fun fact: shortly after this election, some graffiti appeared in Coventry, where I was living, saying Third term, Third Reich)

A second-generation Pakistani like Javed had to regularly contend with local white youth spitting in his face or telling him to move from his table in a cafe. Much younger kids take it in turns to piss through his letter box. Not everyone’s like this, but enough to make him feel not fully British.

Yet at the same time, he knows he’s not like his dad, who is about to be laid off from his job at the local car plant. Wanting to ensure that Javed has opportunities that were denied to him, and worrying that he’ll be never fully accepted, dad is over-protective. Javed is not even allowed to go to a party across the road.

But Javed’s father isn’t one of those conservative parents who only wants his son to be a doctor. Oh no! It would be no problem if he became an accountant or an estate agent instead. What is out of the question is an insecure job which would not guarantee any money. Something like journalism, say.

I presume we know already that Blinded by the Light is semi-autobiographical, based on journalist Sarfraz Mansoor’s superb book Greetings from Bury Park. And, just as in that book, Javed’s life is changed by a Sikh friend lending him a couple of tapes of Bruce Springsteen albums.

Javed had already started to write long sprawling poems, which are ok as far as they go but are mainly motivated by finding words that rhyme. Through Springsteen, Javed starts to find a voice of his own. And not just his voice. He gradually ditches his safe pullovers for a denim jacket and lumberjack shirt. It doesn’t exactly make him look cool, but at least like someone striving for an identity.

Somehow, Javed picks up a girlfriend Eliza, who combines radical politics (she makes her own Anti Nazi League placards) with Thatcherite parents. Javed still has enough self-doubt to worry whether Eliza is only interested in him to outrage her parents.

There are some wonderful vignettes that show that this has been written by British Asians who know of what they write. In particular there is the Daytimer party where teenage girls sneak off to dance to bhangra music at the only time their parents allow them to leave the house.

But also there is the treatment of Javed’s father – pompous and possessive, making all the family pay their wages to him, but also a tragic figure. He came to England with high hopes of creating a new life for himself and become deeply disillusioned. He is embittered and alienates himself from his family in just the way that Springsteen”s father did if you’re to believe the memoirs.

Oh yes, Springsteen. I haven’t really touched on the central conceit of the film. This is one of those jukebox musicals where all of a sudden people just burst into song – often with embarrassing consequences. But here the singalongs are handled with a degree of sensitivity. Mainly the characters are simply singing along with a record, and although there are a couple of big song and dance numbers, which aren’t really my thing, they never get in the way of the plot.

And most importantly you do understand why Springsteen’s tales of hope and despair in industrial New Jersey would appeal to a brown-skinned boy in Luton. The word “class” is never uttered, but it pervades a film about someone who is denied opportunities that are taken for granted by his “betters”.

The choice of Springsteen songs is judicious and there is an interesting shift from the book. If I remember correctly, Mansoor discovered Springsteen (as did I) in the early 1980s, before Born in the USA threw him into every front page. So the big tension was of him adoring an artist who was largely unknown by any of his school friends.

But this film is set in 1987 where everyone (outside Javed’s immediate family) has heard of Bruce. So this time the joke is that his time has come and gone. Who’s listening to Springsteen any more when they’ve got Tiffany? This helps set up a very good visual joke where Javed makes a mad dash and breathlessly asks at the record store (remember them?) if he can still get into a concert, and is shown a big book of unsold tickets.

It is a surprisingly exhilarating and emotional film, so my small quibbles should be taken the afterthought they are. First there is the air of The Wedding Singer about it, where too many scenes are full of signifiers that show that, hey we’re in the 1980s. So here there’s a Rubiks cube, there there’s a mobile phone shaped like a brick and everywhere there are posters for artists who were strangely very popular for a very brief period of time. You half expect Stuart Maconie to pop through the fourth wall with an appropriate anecdote.

And the film is over sentimental, as Gurinda Charda’s films occasionally are. But it earns it’s right to be sentimental and doesn’t pretend that life for people like Javed – and his father – was at all easy. Its a weird feel-good film which contains a central scene of an NF march ending in serious violence.

I was expecting to like the film, not least because I really loved the book, but I equally expected that my reaction would be conflicted. As it happens, not at all. A film that’s as good as its soundtrack. And the soundtrack is very good indeed

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