It’s pretty remarkable what Bruce Springsteen is doing. In what, let’s call, the latter half of his career, he’s just putting it all out there. For decades Springsteen has had one of the most managed public images of any celebrity on the planet and now he’s opening up to his fans about his most inner demons. At least, as he points out, to the point it doesn’t hurt anyone else in the process. Over the last three years, since his last tour with the E Street Band, he’s written a devilishly entertaining biography; converted that into a sold out run on Broadway, then co-directed a film based on his solo album, Western Stars, where he digs even deeper into the myth that is Bruce Springsteen. It’s as if, once he’s not around to tell his tales anymore (which we all assume will be many, many years from now, the only person he’s going to allow to deconstruct Bruce Springsteen is Bruce Springsteen.
Letter to You, directed by Thom Zimny (who has worked on numerous Springsteen projects, including co-directing Western Stars) is the new documentary detailing Springsteen’s recording sessions with the E Street Band for their upcoming album of the same name. If you’ve seen Western Stars, Letter to You works almost as a direct sequel. The film is filled with imagery of the E-Street band recording their new album, interlaced with images of snowy landscapes while Springsteen recites a poetic voiceover.
Filmed at Springsteen’s home recording studio at his ranch in New Jersey (which I will never not take an opportunity to mention I got to see with my own eyes about a year ago), the film depicts the reunion of the E Street Band after a hiatus of a few years, recording their album together for the first time since Born in the U.S.A.. (On all of Springsteen’s albums since then, even the albums designated as “E Street” albums as opposed to solo, from what I understand, they were basically mixed together in parts as opposed to the entire band playing together in unison. Which always made for more of a “produced” product than the legendary concert experience.) Which results in an album that comes closest to what the concerts are like. In the past, I’d listen to a new Springsteen album and wonder what it would sound like live in the upcoming tour. Well, here we are hearing almost exactly what it will sound like. (Or, sadly, would have sounded like.)
Here’s where the Western Stars and Letter to You films really overlap: Springsteen didn’t want to tour to promote Western Stars, instead waiting to gear up for an E Street Band tour that was to kick off in 2020 (their first since 2016). So to promote Western Stars, Bruce invited over some friends and performed a concert in a barn on his property, filmed it, and turned that into a both rocking and haunting experience. Letter to You was supposed to serve as kind of the kickoff to the tour that would have most likely encompassed the next year or so. But, the pandemic changed all that and now, at least for the time being, Letter to You will serve as the only source of a live performance we are going to get. The whole endeavor kind of seems fortunate now.
What a rollicking album. As I watched this early screener (which will debut on Apple TV on Oct 23rd) it hit me this was the first time I was hearing the new album in its entirety (other than the first two songs released). Because when the band is recording, we hear the songs in their entirety. It’s basically a concert film – outside of Bruce’s voiceover there are no interviews – only the finished product is the recorded song. Followed by the members of the band, with the snow falling just outside, downing a shot after each successful recording. (The album was made over the course of a few days, but the film kind of makes you think they all must be stinking drunk considering all the shots they down. In reality, I assume it was just one shot a day.) A particular highlight is when the band records two of Bruce’s somewhat “lost” rarities from 1972, “If I was the Priest” and “Song for Orphans,” here recorded with the full band for the first time. It’s pretty funny to watch 2020 Bruce be moth impressed and mystified by his younger self in the sheer number of how many different words he used to use. (If you’ve never listened to Greetings From Asbury Park, it’s quite a whirlwind of lyrics. He joked that, at the time, he was warned the English language would run out.
Again, what Springsteen is doing is a gift. He’s calling it his conversation with his fans. (For me, a year ago, this was literally true. Again, I’ll mention this any chance I ever get.) His persona has never been “mysterious,” even though, in retrospect, it kind of was. At least, after his book came out, there was a whole heck of a lot we didn’t know about Springsteen. And at the time, that was by design. But he’s now laying all of it on the table. (Or most of it, at least.) This might just be the most interesting part of his career. And Letter to You is another worthy segment of this “conversation” Springsteen is having with his fans. And, honestly, I hope this conversation never ends.
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