By Glenn McDonald
A unique documentary film made by, for and about the fans, Springsteen & I is an intriguing and intimate look at how the music of Bruce Springsteen inspires earnest devotion worldwide. The film – hitting DVD and Blu-ray Oct. 29 – stitches together amateur videos from hundreds of Springsteen devotees.
Earnest really is the operative term here, because the fans profiled in the film can go to weird lengths indeed to celebrate their love for The Boss. Like the mom who turns Springsteen lyrics a kind of home-school curriculum for her kids. Or the man who makes a persuasive case that Bruce ended communism in Poland. Or the woman who, in an effort to get onstage with Springsteen, went to a recent concert dressed like Courtney Cox in that classic old “Dancing in the Dark” video. (It worked, by the way.)
Such gestures might seem hokey, but underneath is a genuine sincerity and good humor that shines through. You could say the same thing about a good deal of Springsteen’s music, actually – that hokey vs. sincere debate has raged for decades in regard to his musical legacy. If there’s one thing that grand rock gestures have taught us, it’s this: Even if it’s hokey, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
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This is a film aimed at serious fans, but anyone with at least a casual appreciation for the populist appeal of Bruce Springsteen will appreciate the sentiments. The film also has something to say about how music moves around in the world – about how the work of our favorite artists enters and informs our lives, then cycles back again.
Springsteen & I is the brainchild of director Baillie Walsh, working with producer Ridley Scott, who came up with the idea of calling for Springsteen fans worldwide to submit their video testimonials online. This concept of essentially crowdsourcing a documentary is not new. In fact, Walsh and Scott based the film on the critically acclaimed 2011 film Life in a Day, which featured video clips from around the world shot on a single day.
Contributors were encouraged to send in short clips in which they told their Springsteen stories in a “visually exciting way.” Alternately, fans could simply send a very short “selfie” style video in which they chose three words to describe Springsteen and his music. The filmmakers also gathered archival footage of Springsteen performances, as well as clips from famous concerts and music videos.
Walsh then whittled the 300 hours of raw footage down to a little over an hour, and debuted the film in a global cinema broadcast back in July. (Thanks to new digital cinema systems, these simultaneous theater broadcast events are becoming a whole new distribution model.) Springsteen fans came out in droves, and I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more of these artist-specific event films down the line.
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Those “visually exciting” instructions don’t really amount to much. Most clips are just people talking straight to the camera. But there a few interesting scenarios. People travel to odd or significant locales – the first place they saw a Springsteen concert, say. One guy mounts the camera in his car as he drives around, and then breaks into tears as he describes how Springsteen’s music has effected his life. It’s all surprisingly compelling. Springsteen & I offers several dozen fast glimpses into the lives of others around the planet.
Such is the reach of Springsteen’s global celebrity, but the film’s most moving passages are the simple and direct testimonials. Fans here talk about how Springsteen’s music helped them navigate tragedies and celebrate milestones. Evidently, quite a lot of fans lost their virginity to a Springsteen soundtrack.
The film effectively documents a phenomenon familiar to any music lover – how certain songs can become deeply personal. Springsteen’s entire career seems designed to facilitate this. He’s built an intimate connection with his fans, and his storytelling abilities are virtually unmatched in popular music. Springsteen’s songs of hard luck cases and blue-collar heroes have been resonating in the culture for more than 40 years.
One particular sequence stood out for me: A young Asian-American woman, who works as a long-haul trucker, speaks to the camera inside the darkened cab of her rig. In one of several scenes sprinkled throughout the film, she talks about listening to Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” one night as she was rumbling down a desert highway. The faraway look in the young woman’s eyes reminded me of those many times in my life when the perfect song, played at the perfect moment, seemed to situate and explain my life with an impossible eloquence. It’s that mysterious magic trick that your favorite music can do.
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There are funny moments in the film, too. One fan joins Springsteen onstage dressed as late-career Elvis. Another turns the camera on her long-suffering husband, who laments that his wife’s obsession has had an indirect but profound impact on his own life. “You being a fan,” he says, “I’ve had Bruce Springsteen rammed down my throat 24-7.” He later concedes that, thanks to his wife’s insistence on attending concerts, he’s seen a lot of cities he’d have never traveled to otherwise.
Walsh wisely breaks up the fan testimonials with plenty of footage of Springsteen himself, including some really astounding early archival clips. Springsteen has been compared to Bob Dylan throughout his career, but in some of the performance footage provided here, the resemblance in style and even physical appearance is incredible.
The final 45 minutes of Springsteen & I is composed of performances from the famous 2012 concert in London’s Hyde Park, and there’s a nice little epilogue in which a few of the contributors to the film get to meet the Boss himself.
Springsteen & I is a pure delight for hardcore fans – could be a perfect holiday gift for that unrepentant Springsteen obsessive in your life. But it’s also an intriguing slice of pop scholarship for anyone interested in how music cycles from artist to audience and back again.
It’s alluded to nicely, early in the film, during a clip from the Hyde Park concert: The Boss stalks the stage and calls out to his fans in the cadence of a evangelical preacher: “The E Street Band has traveled thousands of miles to be here, and where we want to go, we can’t get there by ourselves,” he says. “We need you.”
Springsteen & I is available for purchase here.