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Bruce Springsteen and Tom Hanks Pay Tribute to Jonathan Demme: ‘He Was Such an Inspirational Guy’

At the Tribeca Film Festival, the pair chatted about their dearly departed "Philadelphia" director, music, movies, and the meaning of life.

Kate Erbland

Two days after the loss of beloved American filmmaker Jonathan Demme,  the “Silence of the Lambs” and “Rachel Getting Married” director was still on the minds of everyone at the Tribeca Film Festival, including his “Philadelphia” star Tom Hanks and the man behind the film’s signature song, Bruce Springsteen.

The pair hit the Beacon Theatre on Friday evening for an hour-long chat as part of the festival’s Tribeca Talks series, and the discussion immediately turned to Demme, as the fest’s executive vice president Paula Weinstein introduced the duo and dedicated the event to Demme.

READ MORE: Remembering Jonathan Demme: Why He Was One of the Great Filmmakers of Our Time

“I realized what we really want as a festival is to dedicate today’s talk to the brilliant, extraordinary, committed, fabulous filmmaker Jonathan Demme,” Weinstein said. Hanks and Springsteen didn’t miss a beat turning the opening minutes of their talk into a tribute to and reflection on Demme and their work with him (good enough to earn the pair Oscars).

“I think probably the strongest union of our two names is from the motion picture ‘Philadelphia,'” Hanks said. “God bless Jonathan Demme, we just lost him.”

“He was such an inspirational guy,” Springsteen added. “No Jonathan Demme, no ‘Philadelphia,’ no ‘Streets of Philadelphia.'”

The discussion then turned to the story behind the Oscar-winning song, including how Springsteen came to work on the track for the music-loving Demme.

“He had Neil Young working first,” Springsteen said. “Neil came up with ‘Philadelphia,’ which ended the film, and he wanted a rock song for the beginning, so I said I’d give it a shot.”

Springsteen said he worked on it for a couple of days, but couldn’t quite seem to nail it. Demme, however, remained his characteristically encouraging self during the process.

“I had some lyrics. Eventually, I just came up with that tiny little beat and the track, and I figured it wasn’t what he wanted, but I sent it to him anyway,” he said. “He sent me that opening piece of film, where the camera moves slowly through Philly, and I said, ‘What do you think?’ And he says, ‘Great.’ And that was it. It took about two days.”

Hanks added, “Well, I have to tell you, if you ever want to have like a great moment in a motion picture, walk out a door and make sure they just put up a Bruce Springsteen song.”

They were both met with big cheers.

It was hardly the only movie talk of the conversation, as Hanks and movie buff Springsteen later got around to chatting about other films and filmmakers that had influenced Springsteen’s work — while Hanks was taken with the cinematic elements of Springsteen’s hit song “Born to Run,” The Boss was eager to talk about an entire album in those same terms, his fourth one, “Darkness on the Edge of Town.”

The noir-loving singer said that the 1978 record is likely his most movie-influenced, pointing to his relationship with producer (and former film critic!) Jon Landau, which helped introduce him to key films like “The Grapes of Wrath.” Springsteen believes his affection and consumption for that, and other works by John Ford, played a large part in the making of the tone and feel of the album.

READ MORE: Tom Hanks Needs a Reboot: Why America’s Favorite Actor Is Playing It Too Safe

The meaning of art, of course, was the subtext of the entire chat — but so was the meaning of life, so when Hanks asked Springsteen about something he’d previously said about the two, it formed a meaningful, rich end to the evening.

“You said that work is work and life is life, and life trumps art always,” Hanks said. “Is that a lesson you’ve sorta got to learn over time?”

“Yeah. Generally you beat yourself to death before you learn it,” Springsteen said. “Particularly if your art and your music are something that you’ve clung to as a life preserver. All artists at some point believe they can live within their art. And what you learn either quickly or painfully slowly is that you can’t. At the end of the day, it’s just your job, and life awaits you outside of those things.”

He added, “Songs can get you through the day, get you through the night, they can change the way you think or the way you dress or they can just thrill you with three minutes of bliss, you know? But they can’t give you a life.”

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