In the last few years, Thom Zimny has released top-notch, personal portraits of two icons of American music, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. For around two decades, he’s made a more varied series of projects with Bruce Springsteen, which range in nature from simple concert footage to deep examinations of the songwriter’s early albums. The latest of these, Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You, looks like a promotional obligation when compared to the best of its predecessors: Despite its star’s clear desire to expose the personal roots of the songs here, the film’s execution makes it feel like an audiobook accompanied by lovely images. (And as an Apple TV+ exclusive, it’s an audiobook that requires yet another streaming subscription.)
Shot in a monochrome that beautifully suits exterior shots of snow piling up on New Jersey pine trees, the movie accompanies a new Springsteen record: Letter to You, the first in several years with the E Street Band. (Not that the Boss has been on vacation: He’s published a memoir, had a blockbuster one-man show on Broadway, co-directed a film and released an orchestral record in the interim.)
A B-side to Zimny’s more probing music docs.
The sessions were fairly novel, though the doc doesn’t have much to say on this front: The music was recorded in just four or five days last November in the bandleader’s home studio, with only around three hours total spent on each song; it was the first time since 1984 that the band cut tracks playing together as a unit. As Springsteen recently told Rolling Stone, “It’s the only album where it’s the entire band playing at one time, with all the vocals and everything completely live.”
Zimny matches that ideal in his presentation of individual songs, stitching together multiple takes into seamless full-song performances, spending plenty of time watching each musician. This would not be a bad way for a fan who hasn’t heard the new music to have his first encounter with it.
That is, it wouldn’t be bad if all those performances were back-to-back, basically just a video version of the album. But here, each song is followed by a break for talking, studio chatter and atmospheric visual content. In this instance, the back-and-forth structure kills the musical flow and makes what’s being said less interesting than it might otherwise be.
That’s mostly due to Springsteen’s off-camera narration, in which grand-sounding musings about life typically work their way around to a sometimes-corny invocation of the upcoming song’s title. Clearly reading from prepared text, with all the artificial pacing and rehearsed emotional cues that suggests, Springsteen can’t give us the feeling of intimacy we get in something like Zimny’s The Ties that Bind, where he just sits down in front of his familiar collaborator’s camera and speaks. (The prepared text could have benefitted from a little more editing, too — weeding out some grandiosity and that bit where Springsteen calls his band a “finely tuned instrument of great flexibility and power” just seconds before saying they’re “a finely tuned racing engine.”)
Digging through its presentation to the narration’s content, fans will find some insight into a collection of songs that often deals straight-on with mortality and grief. Springsteen talks about the death of his old bandmate George Theiss, and the strange sensation of being the sole surviving member of their band The Castiles — “my first and greatest school of rock.” He talks about being dragged to wakes as a kid, wonders what happens after death, pays tribute to the E Streeters (Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici) who have already gone to that unknowable place.
But the songs address all this pretty damn well without the explication. Some are micro-memoirs of the Castiles days, while others offer more universal farewells: One suspects the moving “I’ll See You in My Dreams” will be played at many, many wakes in the next decade. On “Ghosts,” Springsteen finds a way to commune with absent friends amid a rousing affirmation of his own continued life. Here’s hoping he lives so long that Zimny eventually gets to sit down, point his camera at an unrehearsed 90 year-old Bruce and ask him to reflect on how Letter to You set up the next phase of his artistic life.
Production company: Thrill Hill Productions
Distributor: Apple TV+
Director-Editor: Thom Zimny
Screenwriter: Bruce Springsteen
Producers: Jon Landau, Thom Zimny, Barbara Carr
Executive producer: Bruce Springsteen
Directors of photography: Joe DeSalvo, Charles Libin, Antonio Rossi
Composers: Ron Aniello, Bruce Springsteen