The Promised Land

Gurinder Chadha’s Springsteen-themed blockbuster Blinded by the Light is a poignant account of the class and racial ties that bind.

Blinded by the Light is a variation on a long-running theme of British cinema: the bright boy or girl who gets out of their impoverished circumstances, combined with the more recent trend of using contemporary rock as a way of tapping into a shared fund of emotions and associations. Many of these films dramatise the biographies of the musicians themselves. Blinded, however, focuses more on the power of fandom and the deep connection between musician and listener. The spin here is that the fan is Javed, a teenage boy in a working-class Pakistani family in Luton, and the artist he reveres is all-American superstar Bruce Springsteen.

The film’s plot is fairly straightforward. Boy dreams of getting out of Luton to go to university, barriers are put in his way, most notably by his domineering, traditionalist father, and eventually he succeeds. But the plot is largely only there to allow director Gurinder Chadha to explore her themes; generational conflict, the problems of finding a place in the world, the desire to cross class, gender, and cultural barriers, and the existence of universal forms of expression that transcend them. In Blinded the ‘doubleness’ or even tripleness of being Pakistani and British and having a strong affinity for America is represented in sequences that combine Bollywood and blue-collar rock with provincial British humour and locations in a series of dazzlingly effective musical numbers. One, based around ‘Born to Run’, starts in the local sixth form and leads on a comic/romantic romp around the town out to the very edge of Luton.

Another is a beautiful sequence in which Javed accompanies his more traditional-seeming sister to a daytime bhangra club, slipping his headphones on and off so that Springsteen’s romantic epic ‘Because the Night’ overlays and mixes with the bhangra, both of them soundtracking the illicit excitement of the young club-goers. It’s through powerful sequences like these that Chadha represents the ‘doubleness’ of immigrant lives and their complex and transformative relationship to the traditions that they inherit.

Blinded by the Light clearly aspires to being the feel-good hit of the summer and it more than fulfils its objective. Indeed, if you’re a Springsteen fan (as I am), and went off to university from your dead-end hometown in the late 1980s (as I did) the end result will verge on the delirious and whatever nuanced political objections you may have will be rapidly overwhelmed by Chadha’s expert handling of the emotional levers and the enormous charm of the actors. The film is complex enough to be intellectually satisfying and revealing, and just frivolous enough to stay on the right side of cheesy.

There’s a climactic final speech — where Javed combines his desire to escape with his understanding that he needs to stay connected to his roots — in which the circle is ostensibly squared and everyone is reconciled. But Blinded also raises the question; feel-good, certainly, but for whom? Unlike, say, Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank or Nick Love’s Goodbye, Charlie Bright where the climactic escape of the working-class characters is ambiguous, the protagonists just heading off to somewhere that’s not here, Javed’s journey really is one of intergenerational mobility; he’s changing class. Those who have been socially upwardly-mobile will feel stirred perhaps, recognising their own journey in Javed’s. What the film can only hint at is how this shift creates new problems of belonging and identification of its own, and how the continuous navigating and reintegrating of past and present, the ever-shifting relationship between traditions and political positions, will play out over the course of a lifetime.

In ‘The Promise’ — Springsteen’s great, downbeat sequel to ‘Thunder Road’ — that anthem for setting out for the promised land (and one of the central songs in Blinded by the Light), what comes next for the person who does ‘win’ is an understanding that the life-project is not just individual liberation but liberation of everyone, that the promised land is not on the other side of a class barrier, but is a change in social relations that will liberate us all. Individual salvation is necessarily collective salvation. ‘I won big once and I hit the coast, but somehow I paid the big cost / Inside I felt like I was carrying the broken spirits of all the other ones who lost.’