As if we didn’t already have enough horrible shit to worry about in 2020, Bruce Springsteen wants to remind us that he’s going to die. Maybe not anytime soon – the guy’s 71 years old and still in better shape than I’ve ever been in my entire life – but mortality is weighing heavily on The Boss’s mind these days, and such wintery musings form the melancholy undercurrent of BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN’S LETTER TO YOU, a documentary/infomercial for his recently-released 20th studio album. Much like last year’s “Western Stars,” the film was shot at Springsteen’s New Jersey ranch by his in-house video director Thom Zimny, alternating excellent performance footage in Bruce’s home studio with slightly gaseous oratory as the camera caresses his property’s exteriors. I’m not sure I’d quite call it “a movie,” but this is one of the more soulful promotional items you’ll come across, not least because of the unusual circumstances surrounding it.
The album “Letter To You” was recorded last November and presumably intended for release in the spring of 2020, kicking off a world tour that I undoubtedly would’ve spent entirely too much money on this past summer and fall. Unlike the sweeping orchestral arrangements of “Western Stars,” this is a straight-up rock ‘n’ roll record, knocked out (for the most part) in a few days by the E Street Band, all gathered in the studio and recording together for the first time since the “Born In The U.S.A.” sessions more than three decades ago. Production has always been a bit of a bugbear on Springsteen records, the tracks laid in piecemeal, sometimes over the span of years, often chasing faddish “modern” trends that age far faster than the timelessly structured tunes. (His early 2000s albums produced by Brendan O’Brien already sound more dated than the synths on “Tunnel Of Love.”) This is why we Bruce fans are always going on and on about how much better these songs are in concert.
The new record sounds fantastic because it was essentially recorded (again, for the most part) live in the studio, and the film expertly edits shots from the various takes and tracks in time with the final mix, along with copious clips highlighting the backslapping bonhomie of these folks who have been playing together for longer than a lot of their fans have been alive. There’s nothing revelatory here in watching the process – the film is too manicured for public consumption to provide any surprises – but it looks awfully cold outside those snowy windows and wonderfully warm inside this cozy studio sharing the camaraderie of old friends who love one another so. The canceled tour and COVID-19 have given this footage an unexpected import. Who knows when we’ll see the E Street Band make music together again, or if indeed we ever will?
The losses of “Phantom” Danny Federici and Clarence “Big Man” Clemons loom large over the proceedings, as does the recent passing of George Theiss, frontman from Springsteen’s first band in Freehold, NJ back when he was a teenager. Songs like “Last Man Standing,” “Ghosts,” “One Minute You’re Here” and “House Of A Thousand Guitars” are all moody ruminations on death’s inevitability, with the record’s revved-up rock n’ roll arrangements often at odds with the generally morose (and occasionally uninspired) lyrics of songs that are mostly more workmanlike than memorable. For a change it’s in production and performance where this Springsteen album is most vital and alive. If “Letter To You” wasn’t specifically intended as the last E Street record, it’s nonetheless the most E Street record, leaning into its essential Bruce-ness and signature sound with all the grand key changes, breakdowns, count-offs, drum rolls, hand-claps, la-la-lahs and even a mighty glockenspiel reverently wheeled into the studio like the arrival of a Very Special Guest Star.
After writing a bestselling autobiography and reckoning with his past for a one-man Broadway show, The Boss has been contemplating his legacy even more than usual these past few years. (Rolling Stone was by no means the first to point out, “Bruce Springsteen thinks a lot about being Bruce Springsteen.”) He does so most fascinatingly here by unearthing a couple of tunes penned nearly 50 years ago for his original Columbia Records demo and giving them the full-tilt E Street treatment. Ripe with the gloriously overheated Catholic mysticism and tongue-twisting wordplay that inspired Bob Dylan to warn the young songwriter that he was gonna run out of English language if he didn’t slow down, “If I Was The Priest” is an instant all-timer that set the hairs on the back of my neck standing up on end during its performance in this film.
The rollicking, cascading arrangement roars along with vintage ’70s Bruce lyrics like: “Well sweet Virgin Mary runs the Holy Grail saloon/For a nickel she’ll give you whiskey and a personally blessed balloon/And the Holy Ghost is the host with the most, he runs the burlesque show/Where they’ll let you in for free and they hit you when you go.” (This song inspired my friend, the great rock critic Ken Capobianco, to suggest we should write a book about all of Springsteen’s Marys.) The harmonica blast comes in like an applause break, with a classic E Street outro that rides Steve Van Zandt’s guitar solo off into the sunset. There’s a similarly garrulous trample to “Song For Orphans,” with 1972 Bruce in full New Dylan mode, singing of “Cheerleader tramps and kids with big amps sounding in the void/High society vamps, ex-heavyweight champs mistaking soot for soil.”
The sight of the bespectacled, septuagenarian Springsteen trying to keep pace with songs penned by a 22-year-old he claims he can barely recognize anymore is far more fascinating than a lugubriously overwritten voice-over narration which, coupled with Zimny’s nature photography, suggests Bruce’s career-long Terrence Malick obsession has finally reached the point of diminishing returns. (Though it was pointed out to me that songs like “Badlands” and “Nebraska” are more than a fair trade for some whispered pieties and hackneyed drone footage.)
Interestingly, the movie closes not with manager Jon Landau wiping away tears during the album-ending farewell number “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” but rather Springsteen sitting on his patio, strumming the first song he ever wrote with George Theiss on a Sears Roebuck guitar. The rocker on his porch rocker, having come full circle.•••
Over the past two decades, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.