I love Bruce Springsteen. His music is the closest thing I have to religion. To be a Springsteen fan is to have your own unique relationship with The Boss. Up until recently, the music has spoken for him, in terms of what’s going on in his mind. However, the last few years have seen Springsteen begin to let us inside, in a whole new way. First, his memoir, which then became Springsteen on Broadway, as well as last year’s hybrid concert film/documentary Western Stars. Now, he returns to the doc world, again collaborating with filmmaker Thom Zimny, for Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You, an intimate look at the creation of his newest album, alongside the legendary E Street Band.
Recently, Springsteen has started to look back more than usual. His songs have always been chronicles of the working class, blue collar anthems. Work like his memoir, however, have showcased his complicated relationship with his father, as well as explained where he’s at in his own life. This documentary, as well as the new album, continues that, with a look back specifically on those in his E Street Band that aren’t around anymore, namely Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici.
Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You invites you inside Springsteen’s mind as he contemplates mortality and the passing of time, but it’s also a celebration of his work with the E Street Band. Never before have we been able to see him at work with them in this way, the creative process spilling forth between them. The chemistry he has with Patty Scialfa (also his wife), Steven Van Zandt, Max Weinberg, and others is palpable, making this an intimate and memorable experience.
The documentary showcases the band, as well as Bruce Springsteen, at work on their new album Letter to You. For five days back in November of 2019, which seems like a lifetime ago, considering where COVID has us, the group met to make some music. Gathering at Springsteen’s home studio in Colts Neck, New Jersey, while the snow rages outside, the E Street Band is whole again, or as whole as it can be these days. In various narrated montages between working on, and then playing, the album’s songs, Springsteen laments the two members of the band who are now in absentia, with Clemons and Federici having passed on. He pays tribute to his first band The Castiles, and muses about the perspective age brings. Of course, he and the E Street Band also craft some phenomenal rock and roll tunes, too.
Between the music, Springsteen’s narration, and the E Street Band at work, there’s magic on display here. Much like with Western Stars, his narrated sequences have immense power, with simple thoughts bringing deep meaning. At the start, he speaks of the desire to continue a lifelong conversation between himself and his audience, stating “I started playing the guitar because I was looking for someone to correspond with, and after all this time, I still feel that need to talk to you.” Anyone who loves his work will be moved, before they let the new tunes swirl around them.
Thom Zimny is a master of capturing Bruce Springsteen on film. Having helmed the filmed production of Springsteen on Broadway, co-directed Western Stars with the man himself, and worked for two decades on projects with The Boss, he has a shorthand like the E Street Band has with him. Throughout the movie, there are little moments and glimpses that Zimny captures, never inserting himself into the fray. The simple black and white cinematography puts all the focus on Springsteen, while Zimny takes the language of music and creates a visual medium to take it all in.
Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You works on multiple levels. As an accompaniment to the forthcoming album Letter to You, it’s certainly a treat. However, it isn’t just supplemental material like that. Each song is catchy and works on its own, but the combination of all of them coming together, it’s hauntingly beautiful, fueled by the special relationship the band has with each other. To watch this flick is to be in the room while geniuses are at work. Who hasn’t wanted to be there for something like this? Now, we finally can be, and oh is it something special to witness.
If you enjoy his music at all, Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You is a must see experience. Even if you’re indifferent, watching a master at work, in perfect control of his craft, after all these years, is something worth watching. For me, it’s not just my favorite documentary of the year, but one of 2020’s overall highlights as well. This is a brilliantly well done and supremely entertaining film, from top to bottom. Don’t miss it!