Springsteen and I, directed by Baillie Walsh and produced by Ridley Scott, is a documentary made almost entirely of home videos, blended with some rare concert footage, that chronicles the meaning of Bruce Springsteen as told through the lens of some of his most ardent followers. For the making of the film, Bruce fans were asked to submit videos of themselves explaining the role that he has played in their lives, both real and – in most cases – imaginary. The beauty of this film is that the fans captured in it are not a bunch of Hollywood and music elite celebrating the Boss, a la the Kennedy Center Honors, but instead are just every day people, young and old, American and international, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers. They lack the eloquence of Jon Stewart, the panache of the Obamas, and the musical skills of Sting and Melissa Ethridge, but they love Bruce no less. I wouldn’t say they love him more; Bruce fans of all classes worship in fairly equal measure. But, they love him differently. With little to no chance of ever actually meeting this man, he remains to them a paradox of mythology and intimacy. These fans must love him from afar even though, in their hearts and minds, he knows them better than some of their closest friends and family, maybe even better than they know themselves. That’s the magic of Bruce Springsteen – to bring us together by baring himself to the world, to provide us with a shared experience, but, at the end of the day, make us feel – hence the title – like it’s just him and me.
The film begins with fans describing Bruce in three words. Passion, hero, love, hope, and Gluteus Maximus (spelled incorrectly on a woman’s homemade poster in her video) are all tossed around in a DIY homage to one of American music’s greatest achievers. This seemed, initially, like a cliché way to start a documentary, something my composition students would do in their introductory paragraph to try to hook the audience in what they believe to be an imaginative way. But, soon, those three words morphed into full stories, experiences, and fantasies, most of which left the audience in fits of laughter, tears of joy, or breathless awe.
One Philadelphia man tells the story of the night that he attended a Bruce show at the Spectrum dressed up like Elvis in an attempt to attract Bruce’s attention. Not only does he get Bruce’s attention, but Bruce brings him up on stage, and the man completely usurps the show, stealing the mic from Bruce, finishing “All Shook Up” by himself as the band plays on in perfect time, while Bruce, pushed to the side of the stage by the impersonator, just continues to play his guitar, laughing to himself all the while. After the man jumps back down to his spot in the crowd, Bruce points to him and says, “The Philly Elvis! The Philly Elvis! I have no idea where the fuck he came from.” What is even cooler is that the Philly Elvis and his family were actually in the movie theater audience at last night’s viewing in King of Prussia, PA, so we all had the chance to ride on his coattails for a bit and applaud him at the end of the segment.
Other people had similar stories of being brought on stage during live shows. One man, who had just been dumped by his girlfriend right before the concert (seriously? Worst timing ever), receives both a hug from Bruce and has his request for the band to play “I’m Going Down” obliged in spiteful solidarity. Another fan, a twenty-something girl from England, holds up a sign that says “I’ll be your Courtney Cox” and gets pulled up on stage to dance with Bruce, living out many a woman’s fantasy of playing the famous role of the brunette vixen during “Dancing in the Dark.”
The best stories, though, were given by people who have never had the chance to meet Bruce and could speak to his influence, as is the only way most of us can, through his music and his undying energy on stage if they’ve been so privileged – as I have – to see him live. A little girl, no more than five years old, explains that Bruce is her favorite singer because he sweats more after performing one song than most normal singers do after singing ten. Another couple, who has never had the opportunity to see Bruce live for financial reasons, tells the audience unabashedly that they talk about Bruce every night, and later, when the film circles back to them, they are dancing together in their small, blue collar kitchen with Bruce playing on a radio propped on a kitchen chair behind them. One of the best videos was submitted by a man who is not a Bruce fan at all. His segment is a lament. A lament at being dragged to over half a dozen concerts by his crazy Springsteen-loving wife. A lament of the length of the shows (three and a half hours!). A lament at having visited some of the greatest European cities, only to have his travels disrupted by being forced to attend a Springsteen concert at the end of a long day. But, despite his complaints, it is clear that undergoing this torture is what he does for love.
One middle-aged man, videoing himself – perhaps unsafely – while driving, actually breaks down in tears when describing what it’s like to listen to Bruce, to be let in, through his music, to the man’s life in such a deeply personal way where you can “smell his coffee,” as he so aptly states. Many people in the audience started to laugh at the man’s sensitive blubbering. But, I didn’t. I totally got it. I, myself, have often lost my breath and erupted into tears not just listening to Bruce’s music, but simply talking about it or imagining what it would be like to be in his company or even in trying to wrap my head around the enormity of his presence in both my life and in the culture at large.
When I left the theater, I thought about what overwhelms me more: Bruce’s artistry or his power. Could you imagine having a movie made about you in this way? Watching one hour and forty minutes of hundreds of people you’ve never met telling you how you’ve changed their lives, shaped their lives, saved their lives? Knowing that you’re not just a rock star, that you’ve reached into and illuminated people’s souls – even those of us who aren’t even sure we have one – by exposing your own? That everyone thinks you write and perform for them personally, that everyone has a story of which you’re a part in some meaningful way? In watching these strangers, and in knowing my own self, it’s easy to see that, with Bruce, there exists a thin line between admiration and jealousy…of both wanting him and wanting to be him. Of thinking that in some way he belongs only to me because he’s my earliest musical memory, my first deep understanding of hurt, hope, and love, yet knowing, really, he belongs to everyone and, fundamentally, to no one but himself.
I laid awake all last night thinking about what my video would have been like if I had submitted one for this documentary. I may have read one of the many pieces I’ve written about Bruce on my blog over the years. I might have told the story of my husband proposing to me at one of his concerts in Atlantic City. I probably would have mentioned the inseparable bond created with my father over our shared love of Bruce’s music. But one thing’s for sure; I wouldn’t need three words to describe Bruce Springsteen because there’s really only one that explains it all: Truth.