How do you watch the two new releases – Blinded By the Light and Yesterday – in today’s world and not get caught up in socio-cultural critiques about how each story features a person of color (both South Asian) who endure a life altering experience as a result of their exposure to or immersion in the music of iconic white males?
A world without The Beatles is unfathomable, which is the point of the Danny Boyle fantasy Yesterday (which is truly much more of a romantic lark in the realm of Love Actually screenwriter Richard Curtis), but where would we be without Stevie Wonder? I sometimes wonder what we’ve missed since the tragic loss of Otis Redding. “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” was positioned as a turning point for Redding. It was him signaling a change in his musical direction before the plane crash that robbed him (and us) of that future ahead. Where would he have taken us?
Blinded By the Light is curious too. As a film, its inspired protagonist Javid (Viveik Karla) is a Pakistani Brit who had to endure the kind of racism we know all too-well today, and the nagging of his father who imagined a path for his son that never took into account what the son might have wanted for himself. What he heard in Springsteen was someone who struggled with the same issues, the same drive and dreams, and maybe the talent to pursue those dreams.
I found myself asking, during the course of the film, why Springsteen didn’t have a similar impact on me? I was here in the US, living in the South, a young man isolated from most of the people around me, dreaming of a life I didn’t know could exist for me. I heard those songs – “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “Blinded By the Light,” “Born in the USA” – but here in the USA, class and race are such different concerns. I may have been poor, but I was running a different race than Bruce.
That, I suppose, is what separates the immigrant experience (both here and around the world) from the peculiar realities of race in America. You can work hard and achieve an education, a good job, start and raise a family and earn your status as a Brit or an American at some point down the road. That’s not to say you won’t suffer the harsh indignities of white nationalism (in whatever form it takes at the time).
But I question more and more whether people here in America ever truly look at me (or someone like me) and see me as an American. What am I? Is my status/fate really what Ralph Ellison was talking about in Invisible Man? Beyond whether or not I can be seen as a man, can America, after all this time truly see me as a citizen of this nation?
As a kid, much like Javid, I listened to the music of the 1980s. The film presents a familiar soundtrack that defined a counter-cultural perspective for me. I was the black boy at a Southern prep school who holed-up with his friends nodding along to the Pet Shop Boys on early CDs. I remember riding in cars along the cruising strip in Asheville, blasting Level 42 or Grace Jones because what 16 year-old kids were listening to that kind of music at the time? We were a multi-racial nerd crew – several black boys, an Iranian, an Irish Catholic-Jew – who had graduated from playing Dungeons & Dragons to rapping along to Kurtis Blow and singing the hell out of the multi-tracked harmonies on Prince’s “Forever in My Life.”
When I went away to prep school, I fought the cultural isolation of being one of the only black students by embracing even more of what were supposed to be the fringe elements. I curated sock-hop dance parties after our high school football games where the Art of Noise gave way to the jazzy-funk of Madhouse before surrendering to expected sounds of New Order and REM.
Javid dances and romances the smart politically-minded girl of his dreams (Nell Williams), first with Springsteen’s lyrics, then his own poetry and this is what every young romantic imagines and leaves pillowy trails of of text in their journals, Word docs, or finds swirling around their heads as writer-director Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham) presents them for Javid.
Film became that thing for me though. I didn’t succumb to musical interludes where I would sing and dance at the apex of a crowd in synchronized choreography to any of these crazy tunes. I dreamed of being Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), the protagonist from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, finding that ear and falling into a world of surreal kink. I was as innocent as Jeffrey, but I would never be as American, because the funny reality is that no one ever, in any critique of that film has ever questioned his American roots. His bonafides are unassailable. It doesn’t matter what he listens to or what beer he drinks with Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). He’s just a kid from Lumberton, North Carolina.
And I was a kid from Asheville, North Carolina. Watching Javid and his struggles in Blinded By the Light, I recognized someone who, like Jeffrey in Blue Velvet, was a less than perfect twin. Try as I might, I couldn’t (and truthfully wouldn’t) want to be them as if I could step into their bodies. What would have mattered more would have been the possibility of finding myself (my black-bodied self) enter those frames and live their experiences, comfortable in the privileged knowledge that I could be seen and accepted without question.
That’s the light of truth I wish everyone else could finally see.