At the outset of the new fan-generated “Springsteen and I” documentary opening Monday in Los Angeles and various cities across the country, several members of the Boss’ loyal following attempt to describe his appeal in three words.
There’s a wide range of responses: “passionate,” “hope,” “energy,” “power,” “earnest,” “inspiring,” “intense,” etc., but the one that might capture it better than any other is “elusive.”
The New Jersey rocker’s most ardent fans, through films and videos they made and submitted for this documentary, try mightily to express what it is that has earned him a special place in the pantheon of music’s most respected figures. Yet nailing it precisely is no easy task, and “Springsteen and I,” rewarding as it will be for the faithful, struggles to produce a thoroughly satisfactory answer.
Ultimately, perhaps that’s because there isn’t one. At least not one single, easy, all-encompassing answer, for Springsteen is many things to many people.
Thousands of fans submitted entries, from which several dozen have been excerpted by Baillie Walsh in this effort to examine the hold Springsteen has exerted on fans for 40 years now. One girl became a fan just within the last couple of years, others chart their own passion for his music going back to his earliest days as yet another of the “new Dylan” singer-songwriters that have been so crowned by cultural pundits.
When fans describe the passion of his performances or the connection of his music and lyrics to episodes in their lives, it’s clearly heartfelt, but not significantly different than what fans of Bon Jovi or Billy Joel or Justin Bieber might say about their favorite artists.
One man outlines his first visit to the U.S. from Europe, specifically to see Springsteen, and how he was singled out at random by a member of Springsteen’s entourage to upgrade his seats from the nosebleed section he’d gotten in Madison Square Garden to the front row. Even such examples of Springsteen’s reciprocity to his fans, while heartwarming, aren’t unique in the pop music world.
There are, however, a couple of bits that seem to get to the heart of Springsteen’s singular place in the pop music world.
“Bruce’s sound and the E Street Band sounded completely different than anything else I’d heard,” says one baby boomer fan with salt-and-pepper hair as he drives down the road. “Bruce’s lyrics always made me feel like I was going through someone’s family photo album and looking at their life and feeling what they felt and smelling their coffee and feeling their sadness and their triumphs,” — an admission that brings him to tears as he continues rolling down the road.
Then there’s the woman who dates her love affair with Springsteen’s music back to 1976, when she attended her first show as a 9th grader. She hones in on the power his music exerted in helping awaken the dawning womanhood in her.
“I hadn’t been to a ton of rock ‘n’ roll sets, but I’d seen my share of shows,” she says, “and I understood that what I was witnessing was far beyond me and my world as I know it. I was way too in the moment to know that my life was changing. But I did know that with each song, I was leaving something behind….Even after all these years, and all the shows that I’ve seen, that concert still defies description.’’
The 77-minute documentary is accompanied by an additional 45 minutes’ worth of performance footage from his 2012 Hyde Park concert in London, for which he and the band were joined at the end by Paul McCartney, to provide the uninitiated a glimpse into what a Springsteen concert is.
And there’s a sweet epilogue in which five of those whose films were chosen to include in the documentary wind up meeting him backstage.
If “Springsteen and I” doesn’t conclusively answer the question of what distinguishes him from the thousands of others who have traveled the path of rock ‘n’ roll before and since he came along, it does give the faithful, and even the curious, a lot to bond over.
Information on movie theaters that will screen “Springsteen and I” Monday night and July 30 can be found on the Fathom Events website.
Here’s the official trailer:
[For the record, July 22, 4:40 p.m.: A previous version of this post said “Springsteen and I” screenings would be held July 29. They’re being held July 30.]
Follow Randy Lewis on Twitter: @RandyLewis2