Just in time for election day, America’s real president makes a stump speech that’s part biography and part self-mythologizing letter to an equally mythic version of the state he calls home. Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You, like a lot of the Boss’ later albums, isn’t exactly groundbreaking or inventive. However, there’s a good reason his homespun coastal Americana never goes out of fashion. Nobody gets America like Springsteen.
Upcoming Apple TV+ documentary Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You showcases the songs on his 20th album. While it won’t tell you anything you didn’t already suspect, you will find an incalculable kind of value in the songwriter’s company.
Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You review
The music documentary is a subgenre defined by the impossibility of defining it. No two decent music docs look or sound the same. And there is no more easily corrupted form, as its primary function is to sell you a band — an enterprise that deliberately and queasily bridges the gap between advertisement and art.
Even the best music documentaries (think Prince’s Sign “☮︎” the Times or Jonathan Demme’s concert films) still qualify as advertisements for albums or future ticket sales. That doesn’t diminish their impact or corrupt their purpose — it simply complicates the delivery. Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz is now as famous for the things it lies about as the things it accurately documents.
That’s a film that’s as good a documentary of a band’s performance as it is a lesson in nonfiction editing and biased storytelling. There are things a director and a subject both want you to know, and thus pretensions toward truth and honesty can be as misleading as the words “based on a true story.” It’s better to embrace the gray areas, the lies and half-truths. Sometimes there’s no more compelling story than the ones that documentarians lie about.
The E Street shuffle
Former The Wire and Fishing With John editor Thom Zimny has been relentlessly documenting Springsteen and the E Street Band since 2005’s Wings for Wheels: The Making of ‘Born to Run.‘ So any sense of getting to the bare essence of Springsteen, cutting through the legends and myths to get to the real man, has long past. That’s just as well, because Springsteen’s music and legacy is all myth at this point, one of the most powerful and potent in the American songbook.
Zimny does a little ground-covering for the uninitiated. He focuses on Springsteen’s earliest days as a rock star with his friend George Theiss, who died in 2018. He also takes a passing glance at Springsteen’s life on the road with the E Street Band, the nebulous gang of Jersey rockers who’ve been supporting the Boss on tour since the early ’70s (and whose lineup solidified in the ’90s).
Even a quick look is heavy when talking about Springsteen, who wears his years on the road on his handsomely weathered face. The film could have gone more in-depth, but then you couldn’t see the band play.
Can’t see nothin’ coming up behind
Letter to You — both the album and the film — offers a fondly nostalgic look back, featuring new songs about departed friends and songs written but never used for his first album, 1973’s Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. The best of those — “Janey Needs a Shooter,” which was made famous by Warren Zevon — unfortunately doesn’t make the film.
The movie is equally openhearted and backward-focused. The ghosts of departed organ player Danny Federici and saxophone player Clarence Clemons are invoked throughout the proceedings in a loving way. The aging E Streeters welcome their old friends’ spirits in the Jersey recording studio in which they’ve gathered to do their job.
Up close and personal with Bruce and his band
The film is split between three visual strategies. The first and most obviously poetic is the drone footage Zimny took of the snow-covered Jersey landscape set to a kind of prose poem Springsteen wrote to explain the new album. This packs so much poignancy you easily overcome how simple the respective elements are.
The second is beautiful black-and-white footage of the band learning and then recording all the songs on Letter to You in the same room together, a privilege the E Street Band doesn’t always have.
The third is lots and lots of old photographs and videos from Springsteen’s past. This stuff has been well-represented in other media in the band’s history (though images and talk of Springsteen’s first band, The Castiles, is slightly less well-trod ground). However, they’re still welcome sights.
He provides consolation and confessions at any time
Springsteen became a legend because he loved his country as much as he hated it. He talked about the things that happen on American streets every day, and he did so so unforgettably that even the politicians whose disgusting work inspired his most biting songs couldn’t help but love him.
Crime, factory closings, infidelity and dreams filled the rain-soaked heart of his rock ‘n’ roll psalms. And he and his band delivered them in the most lively and enormous fashion possible. There is quite frankly no sound as powerful as the whole of the E Street Band playing in harmony. Even the loss of Federici and Clemons can’t diminish the group. At its best, the movie gives you an X-ray of the band’s music.
A riveting look at The Boss and his band
There are invaluable moments captured here by the patient yet clearly hungry Zimny and his crew. We see pianist Roy Bittan playing Federici’s glockenspiel, and Springsteen himself providing the classic heavy staccato rhythm guitar that’s powered his songs’ refrains so memorably since Born to Run. The band has changed, been to hell and back, but it still sounds like E Street — and it still sounds huge.
At the end of each day’s recording, Springsteen and the band raise a shot of bourbon together, happy once again to be in each other’s company. It never stops feeling like a reward to be there to watch them do it.
Toward the end of the session, engineer and old friend Jon Landau hears the song “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” He wipes away a tear and croaks curtly, seemingly afraid of his own emotional state. “It’s got that magnificence to it,” he says.
It may be obscenely kind to its subject, it may not teach you anything new, and it may just be made to sell an album. But Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You offers no shortage of the good stuff. There’s enough warmth here (and in the album) to last us through the winter.
Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You on Apple TV+
Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You premieres on Apple TV+ on October 23.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.