PARK CITY — Until September 1987, Sarfraz Manzoor considered himself a “Top 40 radio kind of guy.”
For the then-16-year-old, who was born in Pakistan and grew up in the Bury Park district of Luton, England, pop music was about escapism. It allowed him to escape the struggles and challenges of his day-to-day life. And it allowed him to momentarily forget about his tense relationship with his father, who wished Manzoor would pay his family’s Pakistani culture more mind.
And then along came Bruce Springsteen — or rather, a friend who was a diehard Springsteen fan.
“He was just devoted to the point of (being) pathological about it, and I could not understand what he was (going) on about because he was Sikh, he was wearing a turban and I (asked him), ‘What (is it) about this (Springsteen)? He’s a white middle-aged guy in his 30s who wears checkered shirts. What are you listening to him for?’” Manzoor told the Deseret News.
Manzoor’s incredulousness didn’t faze his new friend.
“(He said), ‘Bruce Springsteen is the direct line to all that is true in this world, and if you don’t realize that, you’re an absolute fool. But I’m going to save you. Here are some cassettes. Listen to them and it will change your life,’” Manzoor recalled.
His friend wasn’t wrong.
“I was listening to music which wasn’t about escapism but which was about confrontation,” Manzoor said. “It was actually telling stories … with real characters, and I just became absolutely entranced by the idea that music could be something … useful in terms of your own life.”
That’s pretty much the story that unfolds in the film “Blinded by the Light,” which premiered to a packed auditorium of Springsteen fans at the Sundance Film Festival Sunday, Jan. 27. Following that enthusiastic premiere, “Blinded by the Light” has been acquired by New Line for $15 million — the biggest worldwide rights deal of this year's Sundance Film Festival to date, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
The film — directed by Gurinder Chadha (“Bend It Like Beckham”) and inspired by Manzoor’s 2007 memoir “Greetings From Bury Park” — tells Manzoor’s story through the eyes of a British-Pakistani teenager named Javed, played by newcomer Viveik Kalra.
For Javed and his Springsteen-obsessed friend, the musician isn’t just The Boss — he’s “the boss of the soul.” As Javed comes to find himself in Springsteen, his hair gets taller, he rips off the sleeves of his plaid shirt, he puts on a denim jacket and wears a red bandana. He also has an uncanny ability to slip the lines to “Born to Run” into regular conversation.
That obsession isn’t too far-stretched for someone like Manzoor, who’s seen Springsteen in concert 150 times. But the film doesn’t just poke fun — albeit endearingly — at the Springsteen fixation; it shows how the storytelling quality of Springsteen’s music inspires Javed to fight for what he wants, develop his voice and, in the end, understand and appreciate his family.
That’s the kind of story Manzoor believed Springsteen would appreciate.
“Gurinder said to me that the most important thing that mattered more than anything else wasn’t if the script was approved by the financiers or the producers,” Manzoor said. “The only thing that mattered was that Bruce liked it. Because if he didn’t like it, we wouldn't get the music, and if we don’t get the music, it ain’t going to happen.
“Having been an obsessive fan of 30 years, I kind of feel like I know (Springsteen’s) preoccupations and the things that interest him,” Manzoor continued. “And I know … he's not driven by egos, (and) a film that was just about how great he was wouldn't be important or relevant to him. But I think he's somebody who is interested in the idea of what music … can do to a character and to a life. So this is a story about how music can change a character rather than just about how great (Springsteen) is as a person.”
More specifically, it’s Manzoor’s story. The British journalist still vividly recalls his teenage years struggling in what he considered a grim industrial town, and how the last line of “Thunder Road” — “It’s a town full of losers and I’m pulling out of here to win” — seemed to be written just for him.
And then there was the song “My Father’s House.” Those piercing lyrics — “I awoke and I imagined the hard things that pulled us apart/will never again, sir, tear us from each other's hearts” — eventually led Manzoor to reassess his relationship with his father.
“When you’re 16, you don’t really think about your dad’s side of the story often,” Manzoor said. “You’re kind of absorbed in your own world. When I listened to that song, … that actually made me think, ‘If Springsteen can empathize with his dad, maybe I can try and think about the world from (my dad’s) point of view.”
That evolving father-son relationship is at the heart of “Blinded by the Light,” although the feel-good film gives Manzoor a little more closure than he got in reality, as his dad died of a heart attack when Manzoor was in his early 20s.
“I kind of got stuck as an early-20-something self-absorbed person who didn’t really see the other side,” he said. “Writing (my memoir) and making this film is my way of having a conversation with my dad in his absence, and to try and honor him in a way that I wasn’t able to do when he was alive.
“So there’s this wisdom in the story — there’s this wisdom that my character has that I didn't have when I was 16, but which I have now,” he continued. “Even if it’s not absolutely factually true, emotionally (the film) is completely bang on the money. Everything is emotionally autobiographical. … It ain’t fake. That’s something I learned from Bruce.”
And as Manzoor had hoped, it was something Springsteen appreciated. At a Q&A following the film's premiere, Chadha — also a diehard fan of The Boss — recounted how nervous she was showing the near-completed film to Springsteen. His approval meant everything. As he watched her movie, Chadha inched closer and closer to the musician so she could see his reactions. At times he smiled. At other moments, he laughed. And then there were moments when he looked genuinely surprised.
But when all was said and done, the words The Boss uttered were simple: “Thank you for looking after me so beautifully.”