Bruce Springsteen ‘Letter To You’: The Castiles to Bob Dylan, docu sheds light on rock legend's journey
In a career spanning more than 45 years, rock legend Bruce Springsteen is a 20-time Grammy winner, an Academy Award winner and has multiple other awards in his kitty along with a bunch of documentaries to his name. At the age of 71, he is putting out more music than someone probably ever did and Springsteen is someone who always places his band members and fans above everything. With the same energy and intention, the legendary musician’s 20th album, ‘Letter To You’ has been released on Friday, October 23, and along with it has also released, a brand new documentary with the same name.
But as we mentioned in the beginning, Springsteen already has a bunch of documentaries to his name, so what makes this one different? Well, for a first, the Apple-exclusive documentary has been shot at his home studio in New Jersey and features his group, The E Street Band, as Springsteen brings them for the live sessions for the first time since 1984’s ‘Born in the USA.’ The documentary opens with a melody so beautiful along with the bird’s eye view of snow-clad terrains, you already know how emotional it is going to be and as the background score continues to mesmerise you, Springsteen’s husky voice greets you with almost a three-minute-long narration which is probably the best narration we have heard in a long time. No offence to Morgan Freeman or Sir David Attenborough. The American singer-songwriter pours his heart out and starts, “I am in the middle of a 45-year-old conversation with these men and women I am surrounded by and now, some of you, I suppose recently started speaking but either way I have tried to make the conversation essential, fun and entertaining. I started playing the guitar because I was looking for someone to speak to and correspond with and I guess, that has worked out better than my wildest dreams.”
Springsteen continues as we start enjoying the archival footage from his early days, “All I know is after all this time, I still feel the burning need to communicate. It’s there when I wake every morning. It walks alongside me throughout the day and it’s there when I go to sleep each night. Over the past 50 years, it never once seized and I wonder what I don’t really know - is it loneliness, hunger, ego, ambition, desire, the need to be felt and heard, recognised- all the above.” He concludes the introductory narration with, “All I know that it is one of the most consistent impulses in my life as reliable as rhythmic as the beating of my own heart i.e. my need to talk to you.”
The well-written personal and emotional narration sets the mood of the documentary along with the close-up shots of the “Boss”, the warmth of a close-knit circle inside the home studio as it snows outside, the guitars kept in the studio and the never-ending conversations. Springsteen’s ‘Letter To You’ documentary is penned by the rock icon himself and is directed by his frequent collaborator Thom Zimny. It runs for one hour 31 minutes and is shot in all black and white. The singer has also been listed as an executive producer of this project. What we loved about the documentary is how it switches back and forth between Springsteen’s personal and professional stories and how he has weaved them with his studio sessions for his new album also titled ‘Letter To You’. There are no interviews of him or the band members or anyone else and no eye contacts with the camera. This is as pure as it can be.
One of the other highlights of the documentary is when the “Boss” goes all nostalgic and emotional about his very first band known as The Castiles. He remembers his late friend and bandmate George Theiss as someone who dated the singer’s sister and also pulled him out of the house to make him truly embark on the biggest adventure of his life. Springsteen labels the three years (1965-1968) he was with the band as “critically, historically explosive”, adding that those three years felt like an eternity in the 60’s. The iconic singer recalls how he is the only band member left from The Castiles after Theiss died in 2018 due to lung cancer. The director then cuts the shot to Springsteen breaking into the new album song titled ‘Last Man Standing’ with his group members from The E Street Band.
This is a pure golden moment in the film. Unlike documentaries of other artistes, you won’t see any fancy cars in this one, no messy concert footage, no backstage access, no audiences cheering in the crowd or exhausting long-flights, or tiring bus tours or busy city life and we are not complaining. Even though the documentary follows a fixed pattern till the end i.e. the singer’s narration with archival footage cut to studio interactions cut to members recording the songs but you still won’t get bored. ‘Letter To You’ documentary is all about conversations about songs, their on-stage blunders, re-takes, page scribbles, guitar strumming, random humming and much more.
While talking about his early days, Springsteen at one point also mentions the legendary Bob Dylan. As the footage of a young Springsteen sprouts up from the archives, he narrates, “Songs from 1972 were and will remain a mystery to me. They are just the way I wrote back then- out of words. Matter of fact, Clive Davis (then Columbia Records president), the man who signed me to Columbia Records with John Hammond (legendary talent scout) called me briefly after our record ‘Greetings from Asbury Park’ was released and said someone had called them in and told them that if I wasn’t careful, I was going to use up the entire language. And, he said that it was Bob Dylan. Bob was always the mentor and the brother that I never had, so I took these words quite seriously. But all I know, all these songs hold a very warm place in my heart. Songs were often about someone overcoming their fears, their doubts, their times, it’s about fighting for a place of their own and for a kid, I fought a lot for myself in 1972 despite my towering insecurities. I wasn’t an experienced guitar-playing young lad and I felt I had a job to do, demons to vanquish, a world to claim- my world- whatever that world might be.”
From tagging his current band as “home” to talking about recording his 50-year-old songs which were first recorded acoustically, from poetic and nostalgic narrations to how he considered his music as a prayer, from bonding with his band members to sharing anecdotes about his first Sears guitar with the built-in amp, ‘Letter To You’ documentary will keep you glued till the end. Springsteen basically spoke about everything you always wanted to hear in his interviews but never could. He reminiscences, reflects, counts his blessings and accepts how death is an unavoidable fact of life. Springsteen wraps the documentary with ‘Burnin’ Train’- another song from his 20th album. Also, there is a surprise at the very end of the credits but relax, we are not giving away the spoilers here. You can stream the documentary only on Apple TV+.
Meanwhile, you can also check out the trailer of ‘Letter To You’ documentary right here: