Bruce Springsteen's Letter to You

Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You

Dept. of Boss Tunes


Bruce Springsteen reunites with the E Street Band for their first proper album since 2012’s Wrecking Ball. Letter to You, their 20th studio album, is probably the most Springsteen-esque thing they’ve ever done, complete with yonder mountains, and burnin’ trains, and small town hopes and dreams. In this documentary, director Thom Zimny, gives us something of a behind the scenes look at everything that inspired this album.

Umapagan Ampikaipakan: I don’t know if you can call this a “documentary.” At least not by any common understanding of what a documentary is. Letter to You feels more like a companion piece to the album. It’s like a beautifully shot home video in which a group of very old friends get together and do what they do best. They make music.

Full disclosure, I am a massive Springsteen fan. I own every album he’s ever put out. I’ve seen him play live four times. So you can imagine how very moving I found these 90 minutes to be. Letter to you? This felt like it was a letter to me.

Bahir Yeusuff: Full disclosure, I am not a massive Springsteen fan. But you’re right in that this doesn’t feel like a documentary. Watching Letter To You, the word “introspective” keeps coming to mind. Especially when he talks about his first band and being the only one left alive. This feels as much like a diary entry to future generations as it is a diary entry for himself. It’s Springsteen looking back, less at the things he’s done, but more to the things he feels like he’s achieved. He isn’t talking about his successes or failures, he’s talking about what the adventure has felt like, and how it has left him feeling. I hate to say it but it almost feels like these are his final chapters. He’s looking back. Looking inside.


UA: You’re absolutely right. It feels like he hasn’t quite gotten over the deaths of Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici. And that he’s reached that age when such reflection becomes the source of inspiration. Every song in this album is a tribute to something that helped shape him and his career. This feels like music that can only come with maturity and experience. You can’t pretend. You can’t just make this up. Not until you’ve actually lived it.

As I was watching this I was wondering if Letter to You would work for someone new to Springsteen and his music. At first, I wasn’t sure. But as the movie progressed, I became convinced that it would, in fact, be a very good introduction to The Boss. I mean, it’s not often we see musicians explain their songwriting in such a way. It’s not often we see them being so raw and vulnerable. And I don’t know about you, but I have become a lot more interested in certain artists after understanding their process. (Song Exploder has a lot to do with this!)

Bruce Springsteen's Letter to You

BY: Yeah absolutely. I’m less interested in the process of writing, because to me that feels magical, even ethereal. It’s a connection some people have to the muses that others (read: me) don’t have. I’m more interested in how the band crafts a song, how they decide when a drum kicks in, or when that beautiful Roy Bittan Rhodes piano kicks in. And I didn’t get that. In fact, the only voice you hear talking to you, the audience, is Bruce Springsteen’s. All done in narration. There are no talking head interviews, not even with the man himself. No asides with guitarist Steve Van Zandt, or drummer Max Weinberg. No stories of the early years. Just Springsteen’s introspection by way of a voice over. It’s not a knock on the film, but that delivery really solidifies the idea that this is Springsteen’s personal project.

But I still liked it. I liked the quietness of it. There is a feeling of privacy, of intimacy. It’s the conversation you have late at night, at the bar, just before it shuts for the night, when your friend turns to you to talk about the old times.

UA: It’s like when an old uncle sits you down after a family dinner and starts telling you stories.

BY: Exactly. You sit, you listen. You don’t ask questions and just hope he doesn’t have to leave anytime soon.

Bruce Springsteen's Letter to You

UA: That intimacy that you talk about is also reflected in the way this movie is shot. My hair stood on end as soon as the movie opened. You hear Springsteen count, “one, two, three, four” and we get this stark drone shot over a winter forest. It’s pristine. And for a second, you’re not sure if it’s in black and white or just snowbound. It’s beautiful.

That’s the tone that Thom Zimny maintains throughout this film.

BY: Oh absolutely. This is, for me, the definition of on the wall documentary filmmaking. You feel like you’re in the studio with these giants of music, and that you’re constantly looking around and kicking yourself for being there. There’s an awe, there’s a respect, but it also feels like a little bit of glee in the camera work. I don’t think the director ever had the camera on a tripod. Locked down. The camera is constantly swaying, moving, almost like your eye, roving around the room. It adds a personable nature to the film, a very human connection, but still giving the musicians the space to do what they do. You’re never in an impossible spot, a super slo-mo close up of a cymbal hit, or down the neck of the bass guitar. But these shots are then interrupted (in the best of ways) when Thom Zimny wants to slow it down by going outside, and show us those stark drone shots of a Jersey winter. It really emphasised Springsteen’s words and emotions.

UA: Watching Letter to You was a rude reminder to me as to how Bruce Sprringsteen and the E Street Band are one of the few rock and rollers still around. They are old school in the best possible way. Gentleman musicians that speak of, and for, the places they’ve come from. The Beatles did it. Queen did it. U2 still does it. But it does truly feel like it’s from another era.

BY: There’s an honesty to that idea that rock and roll isn’t about the lifestyle. In fact, Springsteen waxes lyrical about pop music. Referring to it as prayer in 180 seconds or less. That idea of a song, to be more than just something to dance to, to be a conversation, isn’t something you see much of anymore.

UA: Good God, I loved that song. “Meet me afternoon ‘neath the summer sun. Right by the lake till the evening comes. I run my fingers through your sun streaked hair. Baby that’s the power of prayer.” What a great opening verse!

Movies like this one are such a great way to experience an album. Having the artist walk you through his work in such a way is an absolute treat. Did you have a favourite song from this?

Bruce Springsteen's Letter to You

BY: The one that had me grabbing my phone for Shazam was “If I Was The Priest.” Just the way the song opens soft, just Springsteen and the guitar, then kicks into gear with Max Weinberg and Roy Bittan (yeah, I’m a sucker for the Fender Rhodes piano). There’s a laid back nature to it, without being lazy, but also without being complicated. There’s a tension in the song that drives it forward. An energy.

UA: Yes! And I love how they developed that tension. In the decision they made by having Sprngsteen alone play after the line: “If Papa rode shotgun for the Fargo line…” and then have the band kick in with: “There’s still too many bad boys. Tryin’ to work the same line.”

BY: It feels like such a simple decision in the room, like a throwaway gimmick, but good lord does it make the difference. And that goes back to what you were talking about earlier. These are rock and roll guys to the core. They know how to tease a song, how to rack up a tension, and how to release it. They’ve learned it from doing teen dances on weekends, working the VF hall gigs, and four and five shows a day each weekend. They know what a tweak will mean for the song and what it’ll mean for the listener. They possess a complete mastery of their element.

I also really like the next track on the album, “Ghosts.” It’s just a real driving Bruce Springsteen and The E-Street Band rock song.

There’s also a line in one of the songs about a golden clown who’s stolen the throne.

UA: Speaking of which, Letter to You feels like perfect counter-programming to this final season of America. I think I’ve been bombarded by so much negativity out of the United States that I had forgotten about that notion of “America the Beautiful. So much so that I’ve gone past cynicism and come out the other side. I’m now looking for, grasping for,  something hopeful that will help me get through the rest of 2020. I found it in that reunion of The West Wing. I found it in Taylor Swift’s last album. And I found it in this.

Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You
Apple TV+
90 minutes
Director: Thom Zimny
Writer: Bruce Springsteen
Cast: Bruce Springsteen, Roy Bittan, Garry Tallent, Max Weinberg, Steven Van Zandt, Nils Lofgren, Patti Scialfa, and Jake Clemons

Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You is now streaming on Apple TV+.

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