Blinded by the Light co-writer/director Gurinder Chadha knows firsthand what it feels like to be an outsider. Born in Kenya when the country was a British colony, she grew up part of the Indian/Asian diaspora who made their way from East Africa to London. For that reason, the 59-year-old’s movies has always dealt with the immigrant experience, and her latest is no different, telling the story of a Muslim Pakistani teenager growing up in Thatcher’s England whose narrowly structured life is saved when he’s turned on to the music of Bruce Springsteen during the late ‘80s National Front/dole queue era. It serves as a poignant parallel to the xenophobia of today.
Likewise, Chadha is a huge Springsteen fan, who pursued her dream of making a movie about The Boss’ music based on the true-life memoir of co-writer (and fellow diehard) Sarfraz Manzoor. It took almost a decade from Chadha’s chance meeting with Springsteen, who gave his thumbs-up to the book after a 2010 U.K. screening of The Promise,” the documentary about the making of “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” Now it promises to be the veteran director’s biggest crossover hit since “Bend It Like Beckham,” which introduced Keira Knightley to the screen.
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Like similar homage “Yesterday,” where a struggling Indian musician in London stumbles upon a world without the Beatles, “Blinded by the Light” is a paean to the power — lyrically and musically — of Springsteen, who might as well live in a parallel universe but communicates in this one with the movie’s writer hero.
After Chadha and Manzoor met Springsteen, they proceeded to reach out to Jon Landau and Barbara Carr at his management company, along with executive producer Tracy Nurse, a former SVP International Marketing at Sony Music, where she worked with Bruce for years, enlisting her to become part of the film’s production staff.
“Turned out ‘Bend it Like Beckham’ was one of [Bruce’s wife] Patti Scialfa’s favorite films,” says Chadha. “I think Bruce was touched that we approached his music from a unique cultural point-of-view.”
Worried about adding Bruce’s music to the film, Chadha was encouraged by the Springsteen camp to begin writing the screenplay and ‘something would be figured out,’ given the film’s modest budget. “They liked the idea,” she says. “We tried to make the music work for our story rather than exploit it. Picking the songs was quite a forensic task. I only used the ones which captured the character’s journey. I set out to make a movie with integrity, that would live up to that legacy — not only Bruce’s music but what he stands for, what he represents. I had to stop seeing him as a rock star, but someone who wrote these songs for my movie.”
When Springsteen came back from reading the treatment with the simple response, “I’m all good with this,” Blinded by the Light went in front of the cameras, and wowed the audience at Sundance earlier this year, setting up a spirited bidding war won by Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema, who acquired it for the $15 million it cost to make. Offers were being texted to Chadha as she sat in the audience watching her own film.
“I knew Bruce really wanted this movie to happen, so I felt money wouldn’t be a problem,” said Chadha, who refused to divulge budgetary details, though sources say that UMPG, which holds Springsteen’s publishing, and Sony Music, home to his masters, cut the director a sweetheart deal. Adds the director: “We always insisted on paying our way as best we could. And that’s what we did. Everybody came to the table with our budget and made it work. That’s how it happened. We were all on the same page, and everything was done through his lawyer. This movie wouldn’t have happened without Bruce’s cooperation and generosity. He trusted us.”
Springsteen demonstrated his support by showing up at the movie’s recent Asbury Park premiere. Springsteen’s longtime manager Jon Landau also hails the filmmakers, telling Variety, “They did an incredible job and we all love the film.”
A fan of Stax soul and R&B, Chadha was turned on to Springsteen from first seeing the cover art to “Born to Run,” featuring the rocker leaning on Clarence Clemons, aka the Big Man. “It was that image of a white dude and a black dude being friendly with each other that first arrested me,” she says. “That’s not something you saw very often back then. The only other integrated group I knew of was K.C. and the Sunshine Band.”
The issue of immigration has always been central to Chadha’s films and “Blinded by the Light” is no different. “Bruce is talking about people struggling to get by, ordinary working-class people on the margins feeling trapped and wanting a better life,” she says. “And that’s totally what my parents were doing. That’s what connected me to him. His songs were like movies, with their own characters and narratives, and it was always bittersweet. He never gave you a happy ending, and he still doesn’t. Just listen to ‘There Goes My Miracle’ on the new album. Devastating, he’s walking away from the one he loves. The man is a prophet.”
Like Springsteen’s recent one-man Broadway show based on his autobiography, “Blinded by the Light” is all about the shared DNA between parents and their children, the younger of whom want to break the mold and establish their own lives, but are still seeking approval. “It’s emotionally loaded on both sides,” Chadha notes. “The parents with a dream for their kids, who have their own dreams. That chasm between the two, which can turn out so wrong and damaging for both for the rest of their lives. I like to mine that conflict and find a way to make it work. … Bruce’s dad never sat him down and said, ‘Well done son, I’m proud of you.’”
The movie’s 1987 setting, rife with Paki-bashing and fear of foreigners, makes an unmistakable comparison to today’s troubled times, especially in Britain, where Brexit has become a hot-button issue. “That’s why I wanted to make this movie right now — because of those parallels,” Chadha offers. “It’s a reminder to all of us what our lives were like back then, and what we’ve achieved since then. I believe we’ve moved on from that. It’s a minority who hold those extreme views. The majority want a world where people have empathy and understanding between each other, with enough food on the table, raise their kids and be happy. Most people don’t want to hate.”
The film not only uses Springsteen’s music but his lyrics, which are projected on the buildings and walls during the memorable scene where the protagonist listens to “Dancing in the Dark.” Says Chadha: “This is a film about a kid who wants to be a writer. How do you make that cinematic? I thought about turning the words into cinema. To make the connection between what Bruce was saying and Javed (Viveik Kalra) was hearing. I couldn’t rely on the song being heard in the background like a jukebox musical. I had to make sure you understood the power, the impact it was having on the kid, without using subtitles. I wanted the words to feel emotional by themselves. I played around with the graphics in post. Just to make them feel like their own characters with the hurricane going on at the same time. I knew that sequence would make or break the film. We had to believe the impact these words were having on this kid. And at that point, the song comes way up in volume, too.”
As for the film’s stateside box office prospects, Chadha sees success beyond dollars. “I’ve made up the production costs and Bruce really loved the film,” she boasts. “At New York, he put his arms around me, kissed me and thanked me for looking out for him. Barbara [Carr] told me at the London premiere, he was so inspired by the movie, that he decided to direct his own for ‘Western Stars.’ That’s all the reward I need.”