In Thatcher-era England, the teenage son of Pakistani immigrants heard a song that seemed to explain the world to him. More than that, it explained him to himself. The song was by someone who was not British, Pakistani, or a teenager, but to Sarfraz Manzoor, New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen understood him better than anyone he knew.
Around the same time, Gurinder Chadha, the daughter of Indian immigrants in England, was also listening to Springsteen. Manzoor became a journalist whose memoir about his love for Springsteen (Greetings from Bury Park) then inspired Chadha, the director of films like “Bend It Like Beckham,” to make it into a movie.
In an interview with RogerEbert.com, Chadha, Manzoor, and the two young stars of the film, Viveik Kalra (Javed, the character based on Manzoor) and Aaron Phagura (Roops, the friend who introduced him to Springsteen’s music), talked about the movie’s relevance to the politics of 2019, teaching young actors about the '80s, and acting with “The Trip” star Rob Brydon.
Sarfraz, this film is very specifically about a time in the past but so many of the issues seems to resonate today.
SARFRAZ MANZOOR: It's weird because these things can take a long time to get made, and yet when they arrive somehow it seems like it's the right time. So even things like "Rocketman" and "Bohemian Rhapsody" were sort paving the way to the idea of music-based films, which wasn't so even five years ago. But I suppose the key things are that I think there is a sense, both in the states and in Britain, that certain communities have their right to be and the right to their citizenship being challenged.
I was in a conversation with Michael Moore yesterday and he was talking about the far-right march that happens in the film. And the guys are shouting out, “If you are black send them back,” which is not that different from some of the rhetoric that we are hearing recently. So yes, if you are from a marginalized community, there is a sense that you don't get to say that you are a British or you are an American with quite the same confidence as other people can. So, that seems like a very strong parallel to me.
But one thing I have learned about Springsteen is that his lyrics are timeless. Music that he made 20 years ago is still relevant today and I can imagine it will still be relevant in 30 or 40 years. The messages are very timeless. Things like your relationship with your parents or wanting to get out of the town that you grew up in—all of that stuff doesn't have anything to do with timing.
One thing that is specific to now I would say is that Springsteen articulated the version of America and American patriotism. It's a reminder of the America that I love and I grew up with--an inclusive, warm, generous version of America and patriotism. He talks about the immigrants that made this country great, or about the long walk home or about the things that we want to do because of this flag. So I think he's a really good reminder of that American idea that we are currently straying from, but we can perhaps be returned to.
I know that the film doesn't track your biography a hundred percent and the character has a different name. So, what details were the most important to get right?
SM: I would say broadly what I wanted to do was make sure to have Javed close to myself, and my parents close to my real parents, and Roops close to the real Roops. Those people are real and I feel like they are the core of the story, and I wanted that to be very true so that's one answer. The second point is I wanted the soul to be true; I wanted it to feel emotionally true. So even though some of the themes towards the end of the film are fictional, I wanted the fears of the father, the hopes of Javed, the friendship and sort of close, easy rapport between Roops and Javed—I wanted them to feel emotionally true even if the exact scenes in which we are setting them are fictionalized. So that was the most important thing, I wanted to get the grain and the soul of truth there.
Aaron, what did you learn about the '80s? Any surprises?
AARON PHAGURA: That it was a pretty harrowing time and I would not go back to it if it meant my life. It wasn't a good time to be a young British Asian. It can be traumatizing as a very young person to have people around you who are so filled with hatred towards yourself or towards a group that you belong to. That is something that can be really tricky to deal with. So to see this character Javed in the film, with vile people surrounding him, I am very grateful not to live the life that this character had.
GURINDER CHADHA: Poor old Javed with those '80s sweaters with swirly patterns, he just was like, “Oh my God.” And also he didn't know how to use a Walkman. We had a real vintage Walkman and I said, “Okay, here is your cassette—put the cassette in,” and I saw him looking at this Walkman and trying to slide the cassette in somewhere as if it was the SIM card for an iPhone.
And I said, “No, no you press eject and it opens,” and he just couldn't get his head around the idea. He seemed to think that it was a prototype to the iPhone to listen music and worked the same way. And then just the music. At first when we played Bruce Springsteen, they just thought that we were sad old people laughing and singing. They just thought we were mad, because they just listened to NWA and things like that. But now they are Springsteen fans, too.
Viveik, you got a chance to work with one of my favorite actors, Rob Brydon.
VIVEIK KALRA: He's hilarious and he's amazing. He just did it because he loves Springsteen and now Sarfraz has a quote from Rob on the front of his book, which has been republished with my face on it. But honestly Rob is hilarious and the nicest man ever. He just wanted to do something that he thought was a good chance that Bruce would see, that's literally why he did it.
I understand that you were a little intimidated about having to sing in the film.
VK: I asked Sarfraz, “How do you sing? What accent do you sing in, American accent, your own?” And he said, “Both.” So I did that. I had to find a way to sing as Javed and not as myself.
SM: I just want to say one quick thing. What I love about the singing that Viveik did, is that he was singing but it didn't sound like he was performing. It was almost like he was kind of just singing to himself. I thought that was a really, really naturalistic, lovely thing.
Did Bruce Springsteen have any thoughts about which of his songs should be included or how they should be used?
GC: He gave me his entire catalogue and said, “Do what you want.” He had no involvement whatsoever. Once he gave us the green light, once he read the script he said, “I am in,” and he said, “You have my blessing, go.” And so everything I did was kind of based on what I thought he would be happy with, because once he got the vision and once he gave us the songs then there was a lot of pressure on me to not make a mess of it.
And with songs like "Thunder Road" and "Dancing in the Dark" and "Promised Land" and "Born to Run"—I had to rework them visually and create them in a new scenario away from Springsteen singing them live. I had to take those songs and put them in a new world.
And the only way that I could really do that was to be ruthless and forget that somebody called Bruce Springsteen the rock star existed, and imagine that he was some young guy writing songs for me to use in a movie. And so I took those songs and I said, “All right, this was written for me, this was written for me,” and forgot about the legacy of those songs.
And so that's literally how I started working on putting the songs into the films. They were an integral part of the film. They were like the dialogue. There were even scenes that I had written out where the song lyrics were written as proper dialogue—songs are moving in. But there was only one incident though where I took a risk. I wanted to use bits of "Jungle Land," especially the saxophone solo. That was the only one where I edited the song.
When I saw him on Broadway, after the show I met him, and I said, “I really need your permission for 'Jungle Land,' because the way I want to use it I am going to have to cut it in three different places. I really want to use that saxophone because I think it's so spiritual, and it's a perfect part of your whole body of work to use over a scene where people are full of hate, but I won't do it without your permission.” He looked at me and he said, “You know what? I think Clarence would love that, you must do that.” As he walked away he said to his manager, “I have got a good feeling about this movie.” So that was the moment he got involved.
One of the things I loved most about the movie was the way that you created a very cinematic mode to the exuberance of being a teenager, and falling in love with music and having it speak to your soul.
GC: Well, one of the biggest challenges was that this was a movie in a sense about a writer, and that's not very visual. So I had to really come up with a way to be able to tell this story cinematically.
I knew that was all about the words getting right under Javed’s skin, but also I had to make sure that the audience understood that it was the words that he was connected with and not just the music. So I had the foreground on words, and that's why I came up with the idea of animating them in a way so that they became emotional elements in the film, as opposed to subtitles explaining things. That's the subtle difference—they are incorporated into what you are seeing.
Sarfraz, are you still going to see Bruce in concert all the time?
SM: Yes, I saw him on Broadway. I mean, this entire project was a sort of a cunning way to try and make it easy to get tickets for the next tour.