Why The Boss Still Works

Music biopics are myth-creation in motion. They streamline events, create new context for songs you’ve heard a thousand times before, and, if made with the blessing of the artists being chronicled, they often excise unflattering parts of history. Audiences tend to passively absorb the histories presented in biopics as fact, whether they’re selling “the songs you know, the story you don’t” (Bohemian Rhapsody [2018]) or “a real life fantasy” (Rocketman [2019]). They also, coincidentally, sell a lot of records ― sales of Queen singles and albums quadrupled following the release of Bohemian Rhapsody[1], and Rocketman gave Elton John his 20th top ten album[2]

This combination of myth and money-making through musical movies isn’t limited to biopics either ― Danny Boyle’s Yesterday (2019) made $144 million against a $26 million budget ($10 million of which went to the music rights for Beatles songs[3]) as well as delivering a boost to Beatles album sales, and even Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again (2018) was a box office success that increased ABBA album sales by more than 50%[4]. Documentaries like Searching for Sugarman (2012) and Quincy (2018) bring attention to music legends that pop culture has forgotten through personal stories and perspectives, and Netflix’s foray into concert movies like Beyonce’s Homecoming (2019) and Taylor Swift’s Reputation (2018) has created an accessible version of exclusive and expensive performances (and, in the case of Homecoming, the enormous emotional, physical and production efforts that go into making those performances). 

In the middle of all this is Bruce Springsteen, whose music and myth has been integral to four separate films in the past 12 months ― Netflix’s Springsteen on Broadway, Jim Cummings’ Thunder Road, Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded By The Light and Springsteen’s directorial debut Western Stars. 

The Boss has been working hard.

But Springsteen’s film work defies the norms of myth-making career retrospectives, or jukebox musicals, or breathless biopics following him from his high school band, the Castilles, to the dizzying heights of fame. Instead, 2019 has been a year of deconstructing the Bruce Springsteen that he has presented to the world ― the one he never really was.

To quote the man himself in 2018, “Bruce fucking Springsteen is a creation.”[5]

Springsteen on Broadway

Springsteen on Broadway ran at the Walter Kerr theatre in New York from October 2017 until December 2018 ― a filmed version of the show was released on Netflix just hours after the final performance. Part monologue, part career retrospective, part live acoustic performance of Springsteen’s greatest hits, Springsteen spends most of the show’s two and a half hour run time alone on stage, apart from two songs performed with his wife Patti Scialfa. His first act on stage is to inform the audience that what they are about to see is amagic trick”, one he’s been performing for most of his life.

“I come from a boardwalk town where everything is tinged with just a bit of fraud. So am I. 1972, I wasn’t any race car driving rebel, I wasn’t any corner street punk, I was a guitar player on the streets of Asbury Park.” He launches into a performance of ‘Growing Up’, from his first album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.. After the first chorus, he moves away from the microphone to yell to the audience, absentmindedly still plucking the arpeggiated chords of the song. “I’ve never held an honest job in my entire life. I’ve never done any hard labour, I’ve never worked nine to five. I’ve never worked five days a week until right now.”

He pauses for audience laughter. “I don’t like it.”

He pauses again, waits for the levity of the joke to dissipate and go back to deconstructing the man they’ve come to see, the blue collar legend and all American hero. “I’ve never seen the inside of a factory and yet it’s all I’ve ever written about. Standing before you is a man who has become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something of which he has had…absolutely no personal experience. I made it all up. That’s how good I am.”

From someone else, it might come off as smug, aggressive or self satisfied, but from Springsteen, it’s self deprecating. He talks to the audience not like it’s a secret, but like it’s something he’s been begging them to believe for years ― and indeed, he has. As far back as 1974, just before the meteoric success of Born To Run, he was insisting in interviews that he wrote about characters, not himself. Back then, he was reluctant to go into too much depth about the songs, “because I’ll screw them up. As soon as you start talking about it, you’re messing with the magic.”[6] In 2018, he’s still talking about the magic trick, but now he’s drawing back the curtain with a hint of desperation ― please believe me this time. 

Throughout Springsteen on Broadway, he goes to great lengths to remind the audience that he is a storyteller, not an autobiographer ― a story about his misadventures driving across the country in the 70s highlights the fact that, just a few months before writing ‘Racing in the Street’, he couldn’t drive. He precedes most songs with anecdotes about his family and his career, but by pairing the songs and the stories so closely, he draws attention to the liberties his lyrics take, the lies he tells to hit on emotional truths. 

Two and a half hours barely scratches the surface of Springsteen’s work[7], and leaves out the few songs that genuinely are autobiographical, like ‘Ain’t Got You’ from Tunnel of Love, a stripped back acoustic song about the difficulties of love in spite of success. In fact, Springsteen rarely if ever performs ‘Ain’t Got You’ anymore, perhaps because it was written about his first marriage (one of the few things he skims over in his memoir), perhaps because he has soured to a song that flaunts his wealth, or perhaps he’s still haunted by the bitter reaction of E Street Band guitarist Steve Van Zandt[8] when the song was first written. “We had one of our biggest fights of our lives,” Van Zandt recalled years later. “I’m like, ‘what the fuck is this?’ And [Bruce is] like, ‘Well, what do you mean, it’s the truth. It’s just who I am, it’s my life.’ And I’m like ‘This is bullshit. People don’t need you talking about your life. Nobody gives a shit about your life. They need you for their lives… He says ‘fuck you,’ I say ‘Fuck you.’ I think something in what I said probably resonated.”[9]

Springsteen on Broadway, however, cannot be quantified by what it leaves out. What it highlights is a musical icon given a chance to craft his own legacy, and choosing to focus on his family, current political movements, and the impact of his work while deconstructing his own myth. Springsteen often wanders away from the microphone when he’s talking, as though he’s comfortable with the artifice of performance during his songs but not his monologues. Only once does he read directly from his memoir ‘Born to Run’, but his language in that recollection is so much more polished and lyrical, it’s easy to believe that every other word said on stage is occurring to him as he says it[10].

He calls on religious imagery with the ease of a lapsed Catholic and a rock and roll icon, and makes the audience believe he is as much a product of their work as his own. A shadow of Van Zandt’s words ― that people don’t need Springsteen talking about his life, but need him for their lives ― can be heard in his final monologue of the show. “I wanted [my music] to be sung and altered by you and your folks and your children, should they be interested. I wanted it to be something you could call on when things were good, and when things were not so good, that it might strengthen, help make sense of your story and your life the way that you strengthen me and help me make sense of my life.”

The show ends with ‘Born to Run’, a song he wrote in 1974 as a 24-year-old. These days, the 70-year-old Springsteen ― “Mr Born to Run, Mr Thunder fucking Road” ― still lives in New Jersey, ten minutes from Freehold, the hometown he’s been singing about leaving for 45 years. He might have told you he made it all up, but in that moment, you believe the magic trick.

Thunder Road

At no point in Jim Cummings’ comedy drama Thunder Road does the titular song play. Jim Arnaud (Cummings, also director, writer, and editor of the film) is meant to dance to the song at his mother’s funeral, but the CD player doesn’t work, so he instead performs a manic interpretive dance in excruciating silence, occasionally describing the lyrics he’s hearing in his head. Captured in a single take, the camera has to physically look away to save him from some of the humiliation. 

Springsteen tells a story, both in his memoir and on stage in Springsteen on Broadway, about a much younger Bruce renting a guitar and working on his moves with the instrument rather than learning to play it, imitating Elvis and not learning a single note. He threw a concert for the neighbourhood kids where he did everything with the guitar but play it. At the funeral, Jim performs Thunder Road in the same way ― he knows the words, and the moves, but there’s no music, and he’s unwilling or incapable of doing the deep, hard work of dealing with his grief, or learning the lessons the song has to teach him.

Cummings’ award-winning short film of the same name did include the song, but Cummings made a conscious decision not to include the song in the feature. “If you frontload a lot of the fulfilment you end up losing the audience. If we had the song in the feature, it would just be this like really fulfilling short film that opens the movie. Without the song, it is so deeply humiliating.”[11] The first track of Springsteen’s third album Born To Run, ‘Thunder Road’ is full of hope and longing, the need to escape and make your own path in life, and it’s a deeply sad song to play at any funeral, or even to watch in the form of a silent interpretive dance.

White, divorced, socially awkward, and trying his best in spite of everything, Jim feels like a character from a classic Springsteen song. His mother has died, his wife has left him, his daughter doesn’t respect him, and his work in law enforcement has left him with untreated trauma from dealing with humanity at its worst. In an early scene, Jim lashes out at a ranting homeless man, but within a week he’s screaming the same things in his underwear outside the police station. Jim is confined by the systems and institutions Springsteen has for so long railed against ― toxic masculinity, the decline of American social support systems, capitalism, even the police, who boycotted and condemned Springsteen after the release of ‘41 Shots (American Skin)’. 

But more than anything else, Thunder Road is a monument to the cycles of American disillusionment. “My mom was a big fan of Bruce Springsteen,” Jim says in his opening eulogy, “and ‘Bruce Springsteen’ meant leaving your small town and going to do something with your life.” ‘Thunder Road’ was the song that made Jim’s mother pack up everything she had and leave her small town for somewhere better, but where she ended up and made a life is now the place Jim yearns to escape. The places that once offered freedom have become the new death traps as America has declined and moved on. The overdose death of Jim’s ex-wife, while dramatically unsatisfying, presents the opioid epidemic as a modern equivalent to the unpredictable Vietnam war, which killed indiscriminately in Springsteen’s generation. 

‘Thunder Road’ itself is a song that cycles melodically up and down, every ascent immediately followed by a descent, described by pianist Roy Bittan as “like staircases to me. I would move up a section, then down. When chords change, I would sort of step up to it musically and then I could come down.”[12] It’s best heard in the final lines and instrumental coda[13] as Bruce declares, “It’s a town full of losers/I’m pulling outta here to win”. Vini Lopez’s descending drum solo is immediately followed by Bittan’s downward piano glissando, before the entire band moves up again, led by Clarence Clemons’ saxophone. But the music never ascends for long  ― it always steps back down, and up again, stuck in a musical cycle that fades out instead of definitively ending.

Leaving doesn’t solve everything ― Jim and his daughter Crystal still bicker in the final scene, but there’s hope in it. Whether Crystal will end up living the same cycle is left open ended ― she carries emotional scars from her mother’s death, and a legacy of dyslexia from her father. Thunder Road doesn’t end with ‘Thunder Road’ either ― Springsteen’s work is infused through the film but never heard, as the film is more interested in capturing the spirit of his music and the decline of America’s working and middle class. Springsteen, like all things in America, is now something you inherit from your parents and give to your children.

Blinded By The Light

Blinded By The Light is, on paper, almost the exact opposite of Thunder Road. Directed by British filmmaker Gurinder Chahdha (Bend it Like Beckham, Bhaji on the Beach), it follows Javed, a Pakistani teen writer growing up in Luton in the 1980s who becomes obsessed with Springsteen’s music. It’s an unapologetic celebration of Springsteen’s work, made with Springsteen’s approval and using some of his biggest hits as well as previously unreleased recordings[14]. Rather than focusing on the hyper-specific life of a character who would fit in on Springsteen’s dark acoustic album Nebraska, Blinded By The Light is about the cross-cultural appeal of Springsteen’s music, and the way art can inspire art.

“When you, as a young person, are feeling disenfranchised, when you hear the music that speaks to you,” Chadha has said, describing the appeal of Springsteen’s music, “it makes your life change, and you find yourself listening to those songs over and over again, and those words over and over again, and you might not know why at the time, but there is something that’s utterly relatable to you.”[15] 

While working on his first album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., Springsteen sat down with a rhyming dictionary and one directive: write two songs for his debut album that could get radio play. The results, ‘Blinded By The Light’ and ‘Spirit in the Night’, replaced three acoustic tracks and cemented the E Street Band’s sound and style, with Clarence Clemons on saxophone and Vini Lopez on drums (the rest of the band were out of town at the time, so Springsteen played most instruments in the song, including the previously illicit electric guitar[16]). ‘Blinded By The Light’ has a rough and tumble quality that Springsteen had already lost by Thunder Road’ ― the lyrics are chaotically semi-autobiographical and basically mean nothing, trying to justify the decision to stare into the sun and to become blinded by the light.

But even in ‘Blinded By The Light’, Springsteen is already has “a boulder on my shoulder, feeling kinda older”   on the first song of his first album, he already felt the age that would be a constant companion in his work, from ‘Thunder Road’ (“maybe we ain’t that young anymore”) to ‘Wrecking Ball’ (“all our youth and beauty, it’s been given to the dust”). But in ‘Blinded By The Light’, he immediately follows his discomfort with aging with a trip on the merry-go-round he’s still a kid, he just feels old because every day is the oldest he’s ever been. The energy of ‘Blinded By The Light’ is cyclical, like ‘Thunder Road’, but propulsive, driven by the promise of the future the right sort of song for a film about a young poet finding his place in the world and feeling it open up through Springsteen’s work.

Much of the film, and a lot of commentary around it, focuses on how far Javed’s life is from Freehold, New Jersey, and universality of the need for escape and teen rebellion. Screenwriter Safraz Manzoor said he “could not have predicted that Israeli women in Jerusalem, white teenage American boys in Omaha, Nebraska and older white women in Australia who had seen the film would all contact me on social media and thank me for telling their story.[17]” But at the same time, Javed’s relationship with his father mirrors one of Springsteen’s most common subjects: his disconnect from his own father, who saw Springsteen as soft and unmanly. The sacrifices made by an older generation for the next lead to resentment, to feeling that their children are wasting the freedom that was so hard earned ― and as a result a new prison is built, one with expectations of success and respect.

The cultural norms of masculinity lead to closed off, uncompromising fathers who quash their son’s emotional availability and try to push it out of them. Springsteen’s father might only directly appear in a few, later songs in his discography, but his spirit is throughout Springsteen’s entire work. The blue collar worker who drinks to disguise undiagnosed mental illness, the person that many assume Springsteen to be, is in fact his father. “When it came time [to write his songs], I chose my father’s voice because there was something sacred in it to me. All we know about manhood is what we have learned from our fathers. And my father was my hero, and my greatest foe.”[18]

That blue collar worker can also be found in Javed’s father Malik, who works long hours in Luton’s car factory before being laid off,  but his relationship with Javed is further complicated by the intergenerational migrant experience. “My parents raised me with the knowledge that I was only in the UK because my dad made the decision to leave Pakistan,” says Manzoor, whose life and memoir the film is based on. “So you can’t tell them to go f –– k themselves, because they’ve done too much for you already. But at the same time, I wanted to be my own person.”[19] When appealing to Springsteen for permission to use the music in the film, Manzoor wrote Springsteen a letter about how songs like ‘Independence Day’ and ‘My Father’s House’ helped him empathise with his father and understand his sacrifices.

This is shown in the film where Javed’s first paycheck from writing for the local newspaper goes straight to a ticket for a Springsteen concert, even though the family is already stretched financially. When Malik realises Javed has spent money that could have gone to the family on a frivolous, selfish expense, he rips up the ticket. Javed’s financial independence, and broader personal independence, is not yet recognised by his father, and this is weaponised when Javed is invited to a lecture in New Jersey and Malik tells him that if he chooses to go, he cannot return home. To become his own person, it seems Javed must leave his family behind. But Chadha instead turns this around, suggesting both can co-exist: when Javed is invited to read an essay about Springsteen, he compares ‘Blinded By The Light’ to his own father’s life, and his hopes “to build a bridge to my ambitions, not a wall between my family and me”. 

The cycle of complicated father-son relationships is comparable to the cycles of declining middle America, where each generation swears to do better than the last and ends up creating new, complicated forms of repression, especially in the early days of adulthood. “We are ghosts, or we are ancestors in our children’s lives,” Springsteen says in Springsteen on Broadway. “We either lay our mistakes and our burdens upon them, and we haunt them, or we assist them in laying those old burdens down and free them from the chain of our own flawed behaviour, and as ancestors we walk alongside them, and we assist them in finding their own way.” 

Western Stars, and beyond

Blinded By The Light and Thunder Road could both be called coming of age films, about young and not-so-young men carving their place in a world, whether it’s through finding their voice or breaking away from their current unsustainable life. Both films end hopefully, suggesting a comfort and newfound sense of identity through the decisions the characters have made, with the promise of a more hopeful future. Springsteen on Broadway is also a film about identity and coming of age, and the fact that it is a process that never ends. “You never get there. Nobody does,” Springsteen told Esquire in 2018. “You become more of yourself as time passes by…In the arc of your life, there are so many places where you reach milestones that add to your authenticity and your presentation of who you really are….[Springsteen on Broadway is] a coming-of-age story, and I want to show how this — one’s coming of age — has to be earned. It’s not given to anyone. It takes a certain single-minded purpose. It takes self-awareness, a desire to go there. And a willingness to confront all the very fearsome and dangerous elements of your life — your past, your history.”[20]

Maybe that’s why people still care about Springsteen’s work ― because it’s not over. He’s still releasing new music ― his latest album Western Stars was released in June, and Springsteen has stepped behind the camera for the first time to co-direct a film version of the album, due in cinemas in late October. Western Stars is a more explicit return to storytelling, where Springsteen sings each song as a different character ― a hitchhiker, a wayfarer, an ageing actor and an injured stuntman, to name a few. After 14 months on Broadway analysing himself, Western Stars was probably a welcome return to wearing a mask and having distance from his work, although the tired actor role might speak to how he felt after night after night on stage.

And because Springsteen’s work isn’t over, it isn’t exactly nostalgic yet. Springsteen’s biggest, most famous work is behind him, and some of it has undoubtedly aged poorly. The opening line of ‘I’m On Fire’ ― ‘Hey little girl is your daddy home?/Did he go away and leave you all alone/oh no/I’ve got a bad desire’ is uncomfortable to listen to today, even as a product of its time. But because Springsteen is still making new music, he’s able to reflect on the work he’s done, re-team with old favourites and bring new producers and musicians into the fold, and create new work that still has something to say.

After Clarence Clemons’ death, his nephew Jake Clemons joined the E-Street Band, bringing a hallowed lineage and a new sound to the group. Tom Morello’s amped up take on ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ was so good he replaced Steve Van Zandt for the Australian leg of Springsteen’s 2013 tour, then kept touring once Steve came back anyway. And it’s not just Springsteen’s music and emotional stories that have remained relevant ― Springsteen himself has stayed ahead of the cultural curve, pushing back against right wing misinterpretations of his music, most notably ‘Born In the USA’, and writing anti-police brutality anthem ‘41 Shots (American Skin)’ in 1999. In 2016, he cancelled shows in North Carolina to protest discriminatory anti-trans bathroom bills[21], and he takes time in Springsteen on Broadway to praise March For Our Lives.

It’s worth noting too that both Thunder Road and Blinded By The Light are early Springsteen songs ― his more recent songs, and even his most successful album Born In The USA remain relatively untouched by film[22]. It could be argued that Thunder Road and Blinded By The Light reinforce the myth of Springsteen, the one he works so hard to destroy in Springsteen on Broadway, but that feels like an unfair assessment. Blinded by the Light is about the impact of his music rather than the man himself ― Chadha believes the reason Springsteen approved of her film and its use of his music was because it wasn’t about him[23]. Thunder Road goes further, presenting ‘Bruce Springsteen’ as a rite of passage, not a person, something handed down from generation to generation as a guide on what to do with no promises of success. It’s a far cry from the slick musical numbers and rags to riches storytelling of other musical biopics, building the myth for mass market consumption.

Bruce Fucking Springsteen is already a creation, and not one Springsteen is interested in rebuilding now that he’s torn himself down. He’s given his side of the story, his interpretation of his own songs rather than the true story behind them, and allowed other filmmakers to take those songs and tell their own version of the tale. He wants his music, “to be sung and altered by you and your folks and your children, should they be interested…that it might strengthen, help make sense of your story and your life.”

And even if you know it’s a magic trick, you still applaud.

[1]  Single sales rising from 527,000 in the six months prior to the movie to 1.9 million, album sales going from 184,000 to 1.1 million. With streaming factored in, Queen music generated $18mil in in the six months after Bohemian Rhapsody, compared to $4.4mil in the six months before. Source ― https://www.billboard.com/articles/business/8512730/hollywood-music-movies-billboard-cover-story-2019

[2]  ‘Diamonds’, Elton John’s ‘best of’ collection, did significantly better than the film’s official soundtrack, which featured Taron Egerton singing covers of John’s songs. Source ― http://abcnewsradioonline.com/music-news/2019/6/12/elton-john-scores-20th-top-10-album-thanks-to-rocketman-sale.html 

[3] Which is actually the cheaper option ― because the film only uses cover versions of the Beatles songs, the filmmakers didn’t have to pay for the more expensive performance rights to the Beatles’ original recordings. Source: Billboard https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/pop/8512779/danny-boyle-yesterday-the-beatles-interview 

[4] https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/chart-beat/8466924/abba-music-sales-up-mamma-mia-here-we-go-again-soundtrack 

[5] Source - https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/a25133821/bruce-springsteen-interview-netflix-broadway-2018/ 

[6] Springsteen in Burger for Zoo World, 14 March 1974. Springsteen “spent much of our interview making good-natured but serious complaints about how little he was able to pay his band.” (Burger, 2013) 

[7] It’s debatable which of the songs he performs is most recent - ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ was written in 1999 and performed on tour but wasn’t recorded in studio until 2012, while ‘Long Walk Home’ was first recorded in 2007. Together with ‘The Rising’, these are the only songs from the past 20 years in the show. 

[8] Also known for his roles in The Sopranos and Lilyhammer.

[9] Van Zandt to David Remnick, cited in Brian Hiatt’s ‘Bruce Springsteen: The Stories Behind The Songs’

[10] The setlist for ‘Springsteen on Broadway’ was unusually consistent for Springsteen, who will often decide which songs make up his 3 hour concerts the afternoon before each show.

[11] Cummings, in conversation with Smith, source: https://lwlies.com/interviews/jim-cummings-thunder-road-bruce-springsteen/ 

[12] Bittan, cited in Brian Hiatt, ‘Bruce Springsteen: The Stories Behind The Songs’

[13] Also a suggestion from Bittan, who suggested the coda when Springsteen wasn’t happy with the end of the song

[14]  Including ‘I’ll Stand By You’, a song written for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

[15] https://youtu.be/1iirGfa3fQE?t=507

[16] Springsteen had been signed as part of the hunt for the next Bob Dylan, so his producer/manager Mike Appel had insisted they were making a folk album and banned the instrument from early recording sessions.

[17] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/29/my-film-blinded-by-the-light-memoir-british-pakistani-cinema

[18] Springsteen in Springsteen on Broadway

[19]  https://nypost.com/2019/08/12/how-blinded-by-the-light-writer-got-springsteens-attention/

[20] https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/a25133821/bruce-springsteen-interview-netflix-broadway-2018/

[21] https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/bruce-springsteen-cancels-north-carolina-gig-to-protest-bathroom-bill-227635/

[22] And is likely to remain so, given the common misconception that it’s a patriotic anthem rather than an anti-war protest song. Springsteen performs the song as a dirge in Springsteen on Broadway.

[23] Chadha on The Director’s Cut: A DGA Podcast. She also mentions that Patti Scialfa was a fan of Chadha’s Bend it Like Beckham (2002)

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Tansy Gardam is a writer and TV producer who can and will lecture you for hours about the music from all three How To Train Your Dragon films. She is one half of hypothetical film and music podcast Pitch Shift, and offers an  endless barrage of unwanted opinions on Twitter as @tansyclipboard.

Tansy Gardam

Tansy Gardam is a writer and TV producer who can and will lecture you for hours about the music from all three How To Train Your Dragon films. For an endless barrage of unwanted opinions, check out @tansyclipboard.