Bruce Springsteen might never get old, but he sure as hell isn’t getting any younger. Seventy-one this past September and fresh off a sublime Broadway run that saw him burnish his own myth by stepping out of its shadow, the Boss still looks like he’s 45, reflects on the past like he’s 90, and plays the guitar like he’s immortal. And yet time is catching up with him all the same, if only through his friends. E Street Band co-founder Danny Federici died in 2008, followed by saxophonist Clarence Clemons in 2011; when former Castiles legend George Theiss succumbed to lung cancer in 2018, Springsteen became the last surviving member of his first band.
In the twilight of a career that’s always been punctuated by songs that sound like ghost stories of one kind or another — “The River,” “The Rising,” and “American Skin (41 Shots)” are just a handful of a hundred examples, each a different sort of exorcism — Springsteen’s 20th album finds him recording live with (what’s left of) the full E Street Band in his home studio for the first time since “Born in the U.S.A.,” and finding that it’s a lot more haunted than it used to be.
The spirits he’s singing about on “Letter to You” are right there in the room with him now, and the lyrics feel like they were written by a man who’s eager to see his old friends again, if only in his dreams, and make sense of where they went. “Big black train’ comin down the track,” he croons on the downbeat first song of a largely defiant album, “blow your whistle long and long. One minute you’re here, next minute you’re gone.”
But if Springsteen’s latest LP is frosted with an air of bittersweet finality, the spare and poetic making-of doc that’s being released alongside it should lay to rest any fears of the Boss calling it quits in the immediate future. And not just because he cheers “We’re taking this thing ’til we’re all in the box, boys!” while clinking shot glasses with Max Weinberg, Stevie Van Zandt, and the rest of the gang that’s gathered together in his woodsy New Jersey studio.
Despite the funereal tone of its black-and-white cinematography and the searching way that its star occasionally mutters about “souls” between songs, “Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You” is an upbeat portrait of someone who isn’t going anywhere, even when he leaves us. It doesn’t feel like a goodbye so much as a full-throated declaration that Springsteen will never have to make one.
It could also be said that “Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You” doesn’t feel like a film so much as a warm and welcome advertorial for the Springsteen album that happens to be dropping on the same day — you can watch one on AppleTV+ and listen to the other on Apple Music, a beautiful moment of corporate synergy — but the Boss has spent the last few years becoming a movie star on his own terms. He blessed Netflix subscribers with the only affordable ticket to “Springsteen on Broadway,” he inflected some rugged American mysticism into the concert doc format with last year’s “Western Stars,” and he (along with his in-house filmmaker Thom Zimny) repeat the same trick with even more intimate results here.
The results, strangely, evoke the self-contained still lifes of Abbas Kiarostami’s “24 Frames,” which is another gentle meditation on death, albeit one with much less rock sax. Springsteen’s well-honed charisma radiates off the screen as palpably as it does off the stage, and even the ingrates who can’t stand his music will want to tough out the live performances in “Letter to You” so they can bask in the sandpapered reveries about Springsteen gives us between them.
Whether talking about growing up in Freehold, likening to 45s to a personal form of prayer, or reflecting— in one especially moving segment — about how the new track “Ghosts” was inspired by “the beauty and joy of being in a band, and the pain of losing one another to illness and time,” Springsteen busts out all of his greatest hits in order to contextualize his new songs. A lot of this stuff is basically just hardcore porn for the converted, and some diehard fans might be miffed at Zimny for spending too much time on Malickian shots of falling snow and not enough on the nitty-gritty studio dynamics of someone telling the guy who wrote “Thunder Road” that he needs to shorten a chorus, or the affectionately bullying tone Springsteen takes when he shifts into big brother mode and tells his producer they need to lift a few levels. Every glimpse we get feels like it’s depriving us of a thousand more.
But there’s also plenty here for anyone who isn’t going to lose their mind at the sight of the E Street Band laying down “Janey Needs a Shooter” almost half a century since it was written (Springsteen laughing at his own outdated lyrics is a special treat). The secret to the Boss’ screen presence is rooted in the same magic that he’s brought to just about every concert stage around the world at some point: The unbridled, V8 intensity of someone who’s dying to connect.
“I am in the middle of a 45-year conversation with the men and women that I’m surrounded by, and with some of you,” Springsteen says at the very start of the film. “I started playing the guitar because I was looking for someone to speak to and correspond with. … The pay is great, but you’re the reason we’re here.” He isn’t sure where this burning need to communicate first came from, or what keeps it aflame now that he’s reached more people than he could have ever dreamed, but he couldn’t live with that fire, and the fire is what keeps him alive (which might account for why this wintry film always feels so warm). From its title on down, “Letter to You” is a testament to the power of communion.
If this film makes anything clear amidst its hazy recollection and hangout vibe, it’s that Springsteen feels a certain religiosity to the act of playing in a band, and practicing for the eternity to come. He feels that his friends’ spirits still echo through music they made together, and bounce around the world like radio waves that won’t go silent until people stop listening for them. “Where do we go when we die?,” Springsteen muses at one point. “Maybe we go nowhere, or maybe… everywhere.” That idea resonates loud and clear on “Letter to You,” but Zimny’s documentary helps consecrate the recording process as something hopeful; not one last ride or a prayer before dying, but a happy reminder that they ain’t dead yet.
“Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You” will be available to stream Friday, October 23 on Apple TV+.