'Blinded by the Light' strengthened author's bond with Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen's music helped Sarfraz Manzoor escape his daily life as a Pakistani teenager in England

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Talking to Sarfraz Manzoor, it doesn't take long for the topic of Bruce Springsteen to come up. 

"Are you in Detroit?" asks Manzoor, on the phone recently from Seattle. He proceeds to tell the story of how he saw Springsteen open up his Devils & Dust tour at the Fox Theatre in April 2005. 

Sarfraz Manzoor, left, Gurinder Chadha, Aaron Phagura and Viveik Kaira attend the premiere of "Blinded by the Light" at the Paramount Theater on Aug. 7, 2019, in Asbury Park, New Jersey.

Manzoor has approximately 150 Springsteen concerts under his belt, but he isn't just any old Bruce fan.

He's the subject of the coming-of-age film "Blinded by the Light," which is based on his 2007 memoir "Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Roll." It's about how as a British-Pakistani Muslim teenager being raised in Luton, England, Springsteen's music changed — and may have even saved — his life.

While Springsteen's music is a big part of the film, which opens in area theaters Friday, "the attention is on the words, not on the man," Manzoor says. That sets it apart from straightforward music biopics such as "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Rocketman," or the recent Beatles-centric comic fantasy "Yesterday." 

"Blinded by the Light" takes place in 1987, which wasn't exactly the coolest time for a high schooler to be listening to The Boss. But Springsteen's words touched and inspired a young Manzoor, and gave him the strength to battle back against the racism he confronted in his neighborhood and to see that there was a bigger world outside his front door. 

Manzoor's admiration of the New Jersey legend was only strengthened by the process of making "Blinded by the Light," which features 19 Springsteen songs interwoven into the film. 

"For him to entrust his entire back catalog to me and (director) Gurinder (Chadha) for this story, which is a small independent film, that is why this guy is worthy of respect," Manzoor says. "The guys who made 'Yesterday,' they paid 1 million pounds just for 'Hey Jude.' Bruce gave his music to us for not very much money — we wouldn't have been able to afford it — and he does it just because he believes in the story. 

"And he let us make the thing we wanted to make," Manzoor continues. "He didn't interfere with the story in any way whatsoever. We showed him the script, and his only words were, 'I'm all good with this.' Those were the words that allowed us to make this film."

"Blinded by the Light" premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews. In the film, Manzoor is played by young English actor Viveik Kalra in his first major film role. "He literally has my life in his hands," says Manzoor, 48. "And the fact that he didn't screw up is just such a great relief for me."

In addition to being an author — next year he'll release a new book, centered on the current political division in Britain — Manzoor is a journalist and documentarian who currently resides in London. He was born in Pakistan and moved to Britain with his family when he was three years old.

Manzoor's fanfare of Springsteen continues to this day, although family duties — Manzoor is married and has two children — don't allow him follow the "Born in the USA" rocker on tour the way he once did. 

Reaction to the film has been "mind blowing," says Manzoor, acknowledging the clichè but saying it absolutely applies.

Having people relate to his story — the same way he related to his hero's stories — has given him a small taste of what it's like to be The Boss. 

"When you do something that is so personal and then it speaks to other people and they find resonances in themselves, that's the magic," Manzoor says. "You know when Bruce says 2+2=5? That's the 2+2=5 moment." 



'Blinded by the Light'

Rated PG-13: for thematic material and language including some ethnic slurs

Running time: 118 minutes

Opens Friday