By Neil Dhingra
Blinded by the Light (2019, directed by Gurinder Chadha), loosely adapted from Sarfraz Manzoor’s autobiographical Greetings from Bury Park (2007), is a fascinating film about a young British Pakistani Muslim youth in Luton (a “four-letter word”) in 1987, who has to discern his identity and vocation as a writer against a racist milieu and, at first sight, a hopelessly authoritarian, mustachioed father who has rigid expectations of conventional success and arranged marriage. Young Javed’s guide is … Bruce Springsteen.
There’s an inevitable question: What exactly is in the music of Springsteen that makes this film believable? As a reviewer notes, for different reasons, one wouldn’t expect this movie to be made about Morrissey or Duran Duran. Beyond that, given the readership of this blog and the sizable literature on Springsteen and religion, what might the film tell us about the elusive theological significance of Bruce Springsteen?
Javed finds his voice through the Boss: he’s actually caught in a storm as he hears about a “twister to blow everything down/That ain’t got the faith to stand its ground” (“Promised Land”). He, with his friend and fellow Punjabi Springsteen fan, Roops, quotes “Badlands” to stand up to menacing racists. He approaches a girl with the words of “Thunder Road” and “Prove It All Night.” Initially, it looks like Springsteen is replacing Javed’s Pakistani culture: in one scene, Javed surreptitiously leaves his family, whose wedding procession is met with racist violence, to buy Springsteen tickets. When Javed receives an award at Monmouth College in New Jersey, he leaves without his father’s blessing in what seems like final estrangement.
But eventually, Springsteen forms what Javed movingly calls a “bridge.” At an Asian “daytimer” (an alternative social space for youth whose conservative families objected to night clubs) to which he’s gone for his sister, Javed puts on headphones, inevitably for Springsteen, but listening to “Because the Night” lets the nervous and inexperienced teenager recognize and release himself into the rave’s exuberant physicality. When he’s in New Jersey, Javed sees Springsteen perform “Independence Day” — “Papa, now I know the things you wanted that you could not say” — and returns to declare, with his own hard-won empathy, that both Springsteen and his father believe in hard work, “holding onto your dreams,” and resisting the “hardness of the world” — values that his father always treasured but could not say.
How could Springsteen have had such an unlikely impact on a distant listener, especially when, as one of his classmates knowingly tells Javed, Springsteen’s “outdated?” The film appears to say that you’ve got to find the music that uniquely speaks to you, but recognizes that Springsteen will endure even as much of the pop music from the 1980s would be forgotten. In the film a sympathetic English teacher earnestly presents some literature — Shakespeare, Woolf — as “immortal.” Springsteen may not be Shakespeare, but, as Roops says, he presents something like the fullness of all the “wisdom” in the world. In the source memoir, Sarfraz Manzoor’s friend, also Roops, says, “Bruce Springsteen is a direct connection to everything that is meaningful and significant in life,” including dreams of a Promised Land which is less escape than a bridge connecting us all.
Manzoor’s book uses religious imagery to describe the significance of Springsteen’s music, with Springsteen as a distant yet accessible prophet. Besides Manzoor’s being “blinded by the light” (after having “stumbled in the dark for so long”), a signed copy of Born to Run is examined by Roops like the “Turin Shroud.” The two of them refer to Dave Marsh’s biography of Springsteen as the “holy book” and quote lyrics as “if they were psalms.” Manzoor’s starting a job on Springsteen’s birthday is a good omen. Concerts are moments of weeping and deep and unexpected “connection,” even across religious and national boundaries, especially when Springsteen records a song with the qawwali singer Rahat Ali Khan.
To be sure, Springsteenism is an ambiguous religiosity. Springsteen, as Roops pronounces, “knows everything you’ve ever felt … and he can describe it better for you.” His music allows one to see the depth and profundity in ordinary life — to see even father-son conflict as “something as old as time,” as Manzoor says, and to respond with empathy. Springsteen himself is a role model of uncommon decency. Manzoor remains a “tolerant” Muslim because there are parts of ordinary life — “those life-changing moments of birth, marriage, and death” — that have such depth and profundity to pose “significant questions.” We need words, gestures, prayers — now, perhaps even beyond Springsteen lyrics — in their midst. But, Manzoor acknowledges, “I still hope to find my reason to believe.” (As Charles Taylor writes of one of the “unquiet frontiers of modernity,” religious funerals, “here at least is a language which fits the need for eternity, even if you’re not sure you believe all that.”)
In Greetings from Bury Park, traditional Muslim religious practice seems otherworldly, at the cost of “the poetry of ordinary life,” perhaps as traditional Catholic practice might to a disaffected former altar boy. As a child, Manzoor laments, “Allah was always watching me, aware of every lapse into sinfulness.” There are the rituals that Manzoor self-consciously inauthentically mimics. He never receives “the longed-for flash of revelation, something magical and profound.” While Manzoor rejects the rhetoric of a clash of civilizations and recognizes that his father’s late-in-life religiosity encouraged calmness and openness, for Sarfraz Manzoor being a “little too into religion” (and hijab-wearing) signals not being “passionate.” And, likely, not being into Springsteen.
Worst of all are Muslim extremists, who represent “betrayal” for Manzoor, because, besides the horrifying violence, they summarily reject the “this thing called Britain” with which he has struggled and defined himself. As the literary scholar Rehana Ahmed has pointed out, Manzoor embraces a reconciling “individual, private and purely spiritual relationship with religious faith” (59). In the film, nuancing this judgment, Javed at least becomes an identifiably Muslim journalist writing as an insider about vandalism of the community mosque, even as his father warns him not to attract notice.
This raises the question of whether there may still be more, theologically speaking, in Springsteen that’s unexplored in Greetings from Bury Park or Blinded by the Light, as engaging as they are. I think so, even if it remains uncertain. Springsteen’s lyrics appeal to more than the depth and profundity in ordinary life — that “Rooseveltian” and “Presleyian” faith, as Geoffrey Himes has written (63). Springsteen recognizes, as he said in his recent Broadway show, there are “demons” both within and without us. Sometimes they come from social isolation, sometimes they’ve seemingly been passed down from father to son — “Adam raised a Cain,” “At night, I can feel that poison runnin’ round my veins.” But in his Nebraska album, from which a few chapters of Greetings from Bury Park draw their titles, but whose songs play little role in the book or film, Springsteen has one of his characters say, responding to the question of why he did what he did, echoing Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit, “Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”
As Jim Cullen writes, there’s a troubling “disembodied quality” to the statement that resists all conventional explanation (173). Charles Taylor has suggested that, in our secular world, the recognition that we’re disturbingly drawn to meanness means that we may have to “turn to transcendence,” to “the full-hearted love of something beyond life” to pull free from an original and deathless fascination with violence. This doesn’t necessarily mean conventional religion — Taylor recognizes there’s a meanness in religion, too, with its dismal record of “human sacrifice down to inter-communal massacres,” (639) but this may move to us hope to “find some reason to believe.”
Perhaps Blinded by the Light is one of the few movies that needs a sequel — perhaps darker, Nebraska-inspired, even more theologically resonant — as Javed makes his way through this world.
Neil Dhingra is a doctoral student in education at the University of Maryland.