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Movie review: A contemplative Bruce Springsteen delivers ‘Letter to You’

Al Alexander
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A scene from "Bruce Springsteen's Letter to You."

Most rock bands are content to just make music. But Bruce Springsteen, the bard of New Jersey, makes statements of intense recognition and empathy for the blue-collar folk who fork over as much as half of their weekly salaries to watch him and his indelible E Street Band perform the songs that mirror their lives of struggle and strife. It is those loyal fans the “Boss” directly addresses via a new album and documentary titled simply “Letter to You.” And it is indeed a heartfelt missive set to muscle and brawn of tunes baring his soul and addressing his growing awareness that the best things in life are finite.

The songs - ranging from hard, loud rockers to quiet odes to his departed friends and youth - are some of the finest of his storied career. They tell the tale of a man genuinely surprised by the height of his success and the evolution of a sound, a band and the singular man who has seen his stardom spread across multiple generations and social strata. But as he enters his 70’s, Springsteen is well aware he’s drawing ever closer to a date with the Reaper. In fact, the impetus for the movie and the album, debuting Oct. 23, are the deaths of six close friends and bandmates from his associations with The Castiles and the vaunted E Street Band, most notably the immortal sax fiend, Clarence Clemons.

In the intently moving “Last Man Standing,” Springsteen is clearly counting his blessings in his tribute to The Castiles, the band he co-founded in 1965 with four other high school pals. With the death of George Theiss in 2018, Springsteen became the band’s sole survivor. If that doesn’t wake you up to the imminence of death, nothing will. Not surprisingly, this has left Springsteen in an uncharacteristically somber mood. Not morose, but something closer to reflective while speaking over gorgeous black and white images (shot by Joe DeSalvo) of his vast New Jersey estate in the wake of a freshly fallen November snow.

True to the title, the Boss gives us the full Ken Burns treatment, complete with dozens of photographs of Bruce and his musical pals in their younger days. It’s astonishing how old he and the E Street Band have gotten over the past 45-plus years. Yet, the playing only gets better, evidenced by the dozen songs we watch being honed and played by the old gang in Springsteen’s private backyard studio. The movie follows a pattern of the Boss waxing poetic about his life and his musical influences before segueing into the next song, each played in its entirety accompanied by a pseudo music video, like the movie, shot in stunning black and white.

As is the norm for these in-the-studio music docs, there is plenty of ribbing and bonding among the E Streeters mixed with some fine Springsteen anecdotes about everything from his first Sears guitar with the built in amp to childhood memories of chasing trains in his hometown of Freehold, N.J. It’s pretty pat, with director Thom Zimny offering little in the way of innovation. But what the doc lacks in technical prowess is overcome by the sheer power of Springsteen’s moving reminiscences and his growing acceptance of death as an unavoidable fact of life.

Does it work? Well, I for one can attest to the fact I was teary-eyed throughout and into full-on crying near the end. And what got to me is how Springsteen is in the exact same place as me in reaching that age where the time you have left is far shorter than what you’ve lived. You can’t believe where all the time has gone, and worse, standing by as old friends begin to depart the Earth in far too many numbers. As each dies, you cling ever tighter to what you have as you achieve grace and joy in knowing how lucky you have been to have had a vocation like his - and mine - allowing you to learn and share with so many similarly inclined friends and collaborators.

Maybe this melancholy Springsteen won’t resonate as strongly with the younger folks as much as it will with the fans like me who’ve been with Bruce since the beginning. But if the kids are smart, they’ll heed what this wise old rocker has to say, as he looks into his rearview mirror and sees a life filled with success, happiness and sorrow. But more importantly, the friends and family who made it all possible.

Al Alexander may be reached at alexandercritica@aol.com.

“Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You”

A documentary by Thom Zimny featuring Bruce Springsteen and members of the E Street Band. Streaming on Apple TV+ starting Oct. 23.

(Not rated.)

Grade: A-