Film & TV

Blinded by the Light Is a Shallow Celebration of Wokeness

Viveik Kalra in Blinded by the Light (Nick Wall/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc./IMDb)
It gets pop history wrong, too.

In Blinded by the Light, a Pakistani-British teenager, played by Viveik Kalra, becomes a Bruce Springsteen fanatic. The supposed irony of a brown-skinned kid’s hero worship is so shallow that it’s insulting — part of the Great Awokening, the cultural hoodwink already seen in Black Panther and Into the Spider-Verse.

Although set in the Eighties, this saccharine film misrepresents the contemporary phenomenon of celebrity-worship as a means of political complacency (extract Springsteen, insert Beyoncé, Jay-Z, or Taylor Swift).

Blinded by the Light is titled after a 1973 Springsteen track that was itself an imitation of Bob Dylan’s mythologizing, borrowing the Bard’s messianic, struck-by-lighting revelation. Springsteen’s attempt at self-invention mixed social self-consciousness with narcissism in ways that were overwhelmingly romantic and, at best, profoundly so. At worst, it was also phony and ultimately delusional, although the media sold it differently. This movie continues that con.

Springsteen’s deification — his establishment respectability and current status as a venerable liberal — confirms that “rock-and-roll rebellion” has become the safest kind of conventionality. Javed takes Springsteen as an icon of the personal and social goals he seeks for himself. But through Javed’s supposedly enlightened infatuation, director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) also misrepresents the history of pop diversity. Blinded by the Light actually avoids everything that is interesting about cross-ethnic pop culture.

Javed’s aversion to the reality of 1980s Britain — Margaret Thatcher, skinhead racism, and the post-punk explosion that also attracted non-white youth — prompts his odd retreat into Springsteen’s all-American fantasy of self-empowerment.

It’s almost as offensive as Danny Boyle’s ahistorical Yesterday, but there’s an even more troubling defect here: The movie is an adaptation of a benighted memoir by Sarfraz Manzoor, who boasts of his own adolescent gullibility. Javed, Manzoor’s romanticized self, falls for Springsteen’s Yankee kitsch, but he avoids the brilliant cultural ferment surrounding him: New Order, The Fall, The Specials, The Au Pairs, Scritti Politti, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, The Smiths, The Housemartins, Kate Bush, Public Image Ltd., Madness, X-Ray Spex, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Sade, Ian Dury, Gang of Four, Delta 5.

Javed’s rejection of Britain’s openly subversive Eighties pop culture for Springsteen’s liberal American platitudes aligns too well with the aberrations of politicized Millennial culture; that’s why the film was made.

Javed latches on to the working-class drama of mid-period Springsteen (Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, Born in the U.S.A.). Yet he’s totally ignorant of how liberalism became elitism and the working class got shafted — manipulated by politicians and muddled by mainstream media, observations that enlivened the best ’80s British pop and that still make John Lydon and Morrissey controversial figures today. Chadra and Manzoor celebrate the aspect of Springsteen’s liberalism that now feeds into self-satisfied, contemporary wokeness (and the drab, bedraggled, self-pitying romantic persona in his new album, Western Stars); their movie feels like an anti-Brexit jest.

Blinded by the Light seems designed to placate the Millennials who know nothing about the complex and sophisticated political and cultural struggles that preceded them. But have Chadra or Manzoor never seen the Hanif Kureishi films My Beautiful Laundrette and My Son the Fanatic? They overlook the alienation that Kureishi articulated as central to black British experience. Instead, Javed lectures, “Bruce sings about not letting the hardness of the world stop you from letting the best of you slip away. My hope is to build a bridge to my ambitions, but not a wall between my family and me.”

Blinded by the Light never gets to the roots of ethnic or economic struggle explored by Kureishi’s films and that Springsteen touched on in Darkness on the Edge of Town. It’s not about assimilation or cultural ambivalence; it takes adolescent conformity to an extreme of political delusion.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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