Review: Documentary ‘Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You’ celebrates E Street ‘blood brothers’
Frank Sinatra may have had the September of his years, but Bruce Springsteen is burrowing even deeper into the calendar with the reverential documentary “Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You,” which looks at the making of his latest album and laments the inevitable losses that come with the passage of time.
Shot in sharp, shadowed black and white, including a few too many drone shots that survey the barren, snow-covered woods near Springsteen’s New Jersey recording studio, “Letter to You” mulls over the notions of holding on, letting go and making peace with waning existence.
“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray to God my soul to keep,” Springsteen says, remembering the bedtime petition of his youth. “And if I die before I wake, I pray to God my soul to take.” He pauses. “For if I die before I wake … I never cared for that part.”
Springsteen, 71, assembled his longtime group, the E Street Band, for five days of recording last November. They apparently knocked out the album’s 12 tracks in just four sessions, making like the Beatles, as Springsteen consigliere Steven Van Zandt put it, finishing a song every three hours. (I have a hard time believing that Springsteen, a renowned perfectionist, didn’t go back and endlessly tinker with the tracks. But when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.)
There’s a fair amount of legend burnishing in “Letter to You.” Directed by Thom Zimny, who has worked with Springsteen on numerous documentaries and music videos for the last 15 years, the movie builds on the well-rehearsed retrospection found in Springsteen’s 2017 Broadway show, presenting the Boss in winter, the fleece collar of his designer denim jacket turned up to protect him from the cold. The Springsteen who used to scream, “Are you loose?” at his marathon concerts is long gone. He remains vital. But, in some important ways, he’s constrained by the image of his own making.
“Letter to You” documents Springsteen teaching the band — including OG members Van Zandt, pianist Roy Bittan, drummer Max Weinberg and bassist Garry Tallent — several of the songs on the titular album, which, like the film, will drop on Friday. Some of the songs are indeed about death (Springsteen was shaken by the 2018 passing of George Theiss, leaving him the last surviving member of his first band, the Castiles); others, like the title track, are love letters to his long-standing comrades in amps. Because it’s Springsteen, there’s also a song that uses a train as a metaphor, which also includes a reference to Cain (who, as longtime students will remember, was raised by Adam) and holy water.
There are a couple of fine songs here (“Ghosts,” a celebration of life in the midst of loss, is the standout), but the allure of “Letter to You” is the entrance it provides into Springsteen’s creative process with the E Street Band at this point in time, a marked contrast to the anguished labor seen in Zimny’s first Springsteen doc, which chronicled the recording of the make-or-break 1975 “Born to Run” album.
Throughout the film, Springsteen lavishes his bandmates with praise (“they can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee”) in voiceover segments that feel a bit more shopworn than when he unleashes them from the stage. But when Zimny lets the images speak for themselves, “Letter to You” achieves a moving power. Each recording session ends with a toast, the E Streeters honoring their music, their friendship and those who have passed on. Watching them savor these moments is to bear witness to a kind of holy communion.
“We’re taking this thing ’til we’re all in the box, boys,” Springsteen tells the band on the last night. That’s a promise that we can all raise a glass to.
'Bruce Springsteen's Letter to You'
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Playing: Available Oct. 23 on Apple TV+
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