Review: 'Springsteen & I' shows why fans adore the man they call The Boss
There is a sacred covenant between Bruce Springsteen and his fans. As he says to a stadium crowd in the opening frames of “Springsteen & I,” a Ridley Scott-produced documentary screening in theaters across the U.S. (22), “We’re here for one reason. Because you’re here. And where we want to go, we can’t get there by ourselves. We need you.”
He's delivered that message with the fervor of a tent-revival preacher night after night for 40 years, leading fans to an exalted state through his three-hour plus shows. To be a Springsteen fan, and I am a massive one, is to believe in that trusting communion between performer and audience and in the healing power of music. It’s also to feel a sense of community, that you are part of a tribe of like-minded fans.
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“Springsteen & I” takes footage of fans, shot by fans, and weaves together a compelling narrative of what Springsteen and his music means to them. The testimonials are interwoven with performance footage or audio of nearly 2 dozen songs and for many fans, the highlights will be the vintage black and white footage from the ‘70s, including “Thunder Road,” Jungleland,”and “Candy’s Room,” as well as a lovely, spare, more recent version of “Blood Brothers” with the band holding hands as tears well up in Springsteen’s eyes. Should that get to be too much, there the hilarious (well known to any major fan) R-rated footage of a rather loose Springsteen introducing “Red-Headed Woman.” If you’re not familiar with the song, you’re in for quite an education.
Even for the most ardent of fans, the documentary would have been pretty boring if director Baillie Walsh had featured talking head after talking head droning on and on about how great Springsteen is. And while there is plenty of that, including lots of fans using three words to describe Springsteen and his music, he also brings in humor and poignancy. For a bit of comic relief, there’s the non-fan, whose wife is the Springsteen nut, and he talks about what it is like to get dragged hither and yon to see shows and three-hour ones at that. Then there’s the Elvis impersonator, who recalls the Philadelphia show where Springsteen brought him up on stage. So much of the footage comes from fans’ iPhones taken during concerts that it’s almost impossible to imagine this film existing before smart phones hit critical mass.
There’s the mom, who’s so bonkers for the Boss that she held up photos of Bruce to her toddler and taught him to say, “Daddy” to the photo (he’s probably in therapy now), and the fellow who brought a sign to a show announcing his girlfriend had just dumped him, only to have Springsteen bring him up on stage to offer a hug and then go off on how many times he got dumped himself. “They’re regretting it now,” he jokes. “They left too soon, too soon. They missed that record company advance money.” (And no, he doesn’t go right into “Rosalita,” like he should have after that line.).
Ultimately, being a true Springsteen fan comes down to a feeling that’s nearly impossible to put into words. The emotion is simply too big and profound for that. You can’t describe how he makes you feel and you can’t put it into words, you can only experience it. I’m closing in on my 50th show and I make my living as a writer, and I’ve never been able to adequately put how I feel at a Springsteen show into words and I doubt I ever will. (This essay I wrote about Clarence Clemons’ death and my mother’s death is the closest I’ve come).
That’s why my favorite fan is a middle-aged guy, probably around the same age as Bruce, who is filmed driving his car. He starts off very calmly talking about how listening to Springsteen’s music is like sitting around Springsteen's kitchen table and being privy to these intimate parts of someone’s life. Each new record is like going through the Boss's photo album and capturing Springsteen’s sadness and triumphs. He’s waxing eloquently. And then he stops. And then he starts sobbing. And he can’t stop. As some point, there just are no words.
The doc lasts for 75 minutes, then there is around 35 minutes of Springsteen’s 2012 performance at London’s Hard Rock Calling. It circles back with an epilogue that has some terrifically sweet moments that I won’t spoil here.
This isn’t a film for non-fans, but it’s not meant to be. As much as it’s a love letter to Springsteen (who provided footage but reportedly had no editorial control over the content), it’s also a love letter from fans to fans. This isn’t the story of Springsteen per se, although many of us would argue that his relationship with his fans is one of the most vital parts of his life and that he needs us as much as we need him. No one will find out anything new about him or his back story, but they will come away wanting to see him if they haven’t. And if they have seen him, then it will start the countdown clock until the next concert... although for most of us fans, that clock begins the minute we leave the show.