Film Review: Letter To You (2020)

Starring: Roy Bittan, Jake Clemons, Charlie Giordano, Nils Lofgren, Patti Scialfa, Bruce Springsteen, Garry Tallent, Stevie Van Zandt and Max Weinberg

Directed by: Thom Zimny

Synopsis: A tribute to The E Street Band, rock ‘n’ roll, and the way music has shaped Bruce Springsteen’s life, this Thom Zimny documentary captures Bruce reflecting on love and loss while recording with his full band for the first time since Born in the U.S.A.

Accompanying the release of Bruce Springsteen’s twentieth album, Letter To You, this Apple TV exclusive takes us deep into the heart of the recording process, while giving Bruce a chance to provide context, us a chance to confirm or evaluate our favourite and least favourite songs on the album, and an opportunity for everyone to hear ten of twelve tracks (“Janey Needs a Shooter” and “Rainmaker” are not included) performed “live” at least once until 2022.

As an instrumental of “Letter To You” brings us into a snowy farm in New Jersey, Bruce Springsteen picks up from his recent video documentations, Springsteen on Broadway and Western Stars, reiterating the ongoing conversation he’s been having with his audience and The E Street Band. It’s been three years since we saw everyone together, and after a brief comment on the fluctuation of New Jersey weather, The Boss gets the work started.
During this opening, a brief shot of a cowboy hat can be seen hanging up behind a dark window, as Zimny’s camera drifts up and across the area. The Western Stars aren’t shining as bright at this moment, but they will be again at some point and this shot makes that clear. Until then, with a band introduction and the pounding of drums from Max Weinberg getting us going, the focus is on rock and roll.

For me, the main joys of this documentary are in the looks on faces and in how the film allows us to visually experience the moments that have been flooring us within these songs. Take Stevie’s response to the intro progression information in this opening, the intensity Max plays with, the magic coming from Roy’s fingers, that little smile on Bruce’s face as his sings the penultimate, “I sent it in my letter to you” as very early examples, and believe me there are a lot more.
Stevie’s reaction of “pretty good” upon the conclusion of the title track is blunt, and it’s somewhat less enthusiastic than my initial reaction was to hearing it, but this documentary is a reminder of just how well Steve Van Zandt knows music, and if his first instinct is positive, you can be sure you’ve got a hit on your hands! There’s a great segment sometime later on that sees him suggesting how the opening of this particular song should go, and it’s brilliant that forty-five years after he put “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” together, we can still watch him flawlessly directing and orchestrating good music. This process had to be flawless too, when you consider the pressure Stevie might have instantly cast upon his bandmates in stating, “Back on our Beatles schedule, three hours a song, that’s how they did it“. Fortunately any pressure is immediately lifted by Mr Jon Landau and his fantastic line, “If we record Saturday and Sunday we could get a double album!”

Joining Springsteen, The E Street Band and Mr Landau for this documented recording of the album is notably, Ron Aniello (the album’s producer) and surprisingly Bruce’s cousin, Frank Bruno, the man who helped Bruce tune his first guitar and father of one of the key components in the Seeger Sessions Band. In-between the performances of these songs are quick interludes that take us behind the scenes for E Street banter, and for spoken monologues by Bruce that provide context to these ten featured tracks.

We’re taken into the next song courtesy of Bruce, Nils and Stevie discussing the many guitars owned and played by Bruce over the years and the fascinating methods used to incorporate speakers into guitars by the young musicians of the sixties. Of course, this brings us to the late George Theiss, the lead singer of Bruce’s first band The Castilles, and essentially, the driving force of this entire album. It was Theiss’ recent passing that sparked several of these songs, particularly “Last Man Standing”, and after hearing Bruce’s words about Theiss and the significance of Bruce being the only member of his first band still alive, it really makes this track the soul of the album.

Two performances in, and the men and women inside the recording studio are already toasting to four opening nights inside the San Siro – “oh, I like that!” says Stevie with glee. I’ll drink to that too! I love that they follow this up talking about the dedication of the Italian audience and their love of music, to the extent that they’ll continue singing “The Promised Land” after it’s finished and also sing the internal riffs of songs such as “Rosalita”. I’ll speak for you all in saying we need live music back as soon as possible.

In being able to listen to this album a week early, having this documentary and ten of twelve songs featured gives me an opportunity for a quick evaluation of some opinions given in the initial review (no need for a four month break like with Western Stars and Songs From The Film last year!). One song that’s fascinated me over the last seven days has been “The Power of Prayer”. This time last week I wasn’t convinced, referring to the delivery of the title as “Christian rock”, but damn this one has grown on me! One of my most played from the album, I’ve been pondering with every listen what it means, and thankfully Bruce summarises it beautifully here. It’s a pop record, and nothing brings Bruce joy quite like three minutes and a forty-five RPM record. If you get the music right, it has the power of prayer – this one does, and it makes so much sense now!
It was evident from the photos released of these recording sessions and from the first half of this documentary, but this performance does confirm that Jake Clemons wasn’t present for all of the recording (we do see him alongside Bruce and The E Street Band later on) and that his sax solos were recorded sometime after this week in November. Not to worry though, as his contributions were also filmed and we get to see some fantastic shots of Bruce signalling him through his solo during this segment of the film. Jake’s solos aren’t exactly “Jungleland” on this album (what is?) but they’re strong, solid and enjoyable, so what’s not to like about them?

The one song on this album that still hasn’t enamoured me is “House of a Thousand Guitars”. I don’t necessarily dislike it, but I definitely don’t like it yet. Compared to the rest of the album, there’s just nothing about this one that hits me in the right way, so of course just this Monday, Bruce was saying how much liked this song. Not only that, he cited it as one of his favourites on the entire album, alongside Zane Lowe in their interview together for Apple Music. In this documentary we can surmise why too, as it more or less summarises his relationship with The E Street Band, and for Bruce there’s deeper meaning within that I simply haven’t been able to resonate with yet.

“The E Street Band makes me dream, think, and write big. When I’m amongst my friends, I allow a certain part of my mind, that seems to be reserved for only them, to be set free, and I dwell in a house of a thousand dreams. What happens in this house matters to me. We haven’t been made perfect from God, but here I try to speak in the voice of my better angels. We have been given the tools and the property of the soul, to be attended to, and accountable for, and that takes work. Work that we might build on the principles of love, liberty, fraternity, ancient ideas, that still form the basis for a good life and human society. What happens in this house matters. So brothers and sisters, wherever you are, let’s light up this house.”

And now for the song that I love more than any other on this album! As Bruce urges Roy on to play the glockenspiel and the ever-present ghost of Danny Federici makes his presence felt, Bruce takes this moment to mention that tomorrow, they’ll be recording songs that are fifty years old (with wild lyrics!).
The first of the two featured in this film is “If I Was the Priest”, a song that I’ve gone back to more itself than the album as a whole, and a song that, right now, I’m believing is one of the greatest things Bruce Springsteen has ever put on a record. He’s said in the past that he’ll never play this live, but the fact that he changed his mind about ever putting it on an album gives me a lot of hope for 2022 onwards. Until then, though, I’ll enjoy revisiting this sole ‘live’ performance of the song over and over.
Standing in his studio, glasses on, wearing a red Town & Country Cycling t-shirt is quite the contrast from the young shirtless man with long raggy hair (who also may have been stoned?) playing a “Save My Love” demo in 1978, but the joy of music is still there. Oh, this is what we live and love to see. There’s a moment during this one where the song is brought down before a glorious finale, and on Bruce’s face we see a smile. We know that he’s as thrilled about this as we all were when we first heard it, and the same can most certainly be said for the other two shining lights of this track. Take a look at Stevie’s face when he’s playing his outro solo, and at Patti who is having the time of her life contributing backing vocals (despite a stern faced sunglasses wearing Springsteen studying her in the background). Regular readers will know I refer to the best Springsteen song moments as “Essence”, and this entire song gets that title.

That performance perfectly connects to “Ghosts”, if only for the line in Bruce’s monologue, “The joy I feel when I work with my band is a hard thing to describe, confusion often reigns, and suddenly dynamite.” At this point I suspect we’re all aware of its deeper meanings with the extra time we’ve spent listening to it as a single, but Bruce reiterates how the song is about the “joy of being in a band and the sadness of losing one another to time“. This segment – like the official music video – also features archive footage of notable live concerts, with poor quality Bottom Line 1975 footage and HD No Nukes 1979 footage (release them both, Bruce, we’ll have it all!) once more emphasising the fragility of time passing by and feelings of joy evoked by live music.
The highlight of this sequence, for me, is undoubtedly Bruce and Stevie not taking themselves too seriously listening to the playback, mimicking their high notes and simply enjoying the recording process. Born to Run took many, many months to make from May 1974 to July 1975 and was (by all accounts) one hell of a stressful time. In comparison, Letter To You took five days and this moment highlights a man and his band enjoying the little moments. Who knows how many more times they’ll be able to do this, so there’s no need to sweat the small stuff.
Once again we get to see the look of excitement on Bruce’s face during this performance, and I love how it’s during my favourite moment of the song – “I shoulder your Les Paul and finger that fretboard…” – where Max and Roy evoke magic above all others to make the second of the final four-song sequence on this album so incredibly blissful.

That brings us to the recording of the penultimate track of the album, “Song For Orphans”. Now, you might have seen a few people asking over the last few days, weeks, months or years what the lyrics of this song actually mean. Well, in this very documentary Bruce Springsteen will tell you that he doesn’t really know! Influenced by Bob Dylan, the songs from 1972 “were and remain a mystery to me“. They were songs where Bruce wrote down whatever words came to mind, just to see if he could make them work, to the extent that Clive Davis contacted him after hearing Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ and said, “if you’re not careful you’re going to use up the entire English language!“. With Letter To You being an album that really covers all eras and moments of his career, it’s nice that this documentary sees Bruce acknowledging the Dylan influence and comparisons.
Prior to the performance, Bruce confirms that this song is about, “someone overcoming their fears, doubts, times, and fighting for a place of their own“. The song is a representation of Springsteen’s larger than life goal at that stage in his career, to “meet, confront, and confirm my destiny: To come on that stage and change your life.”
Alongside even more expressions of joy on the faces of Springsteen and Van Zandt, the best aspect of this song performance is (by a landslide) Patti continuing to be the brightest spark of the documentary with her backing vocals and the joy she’s having contributing them. This genuinely might be the best hour and twenty-five minutes of Patti Scialfa’s career.

Cheers to The E Street Band!” – I’ll second that!

“One Minute You’re Here” is, of course, about mortality, and during Bruce’s monologue we’re shown archive footage and photos from his childhood that add extra context to the song – I’ve listened to this track several times and have enjoyed it with every listen, but would have never picked up on the significance of the line about laying pennies down on train-tracks if not for this monologue. This is honestly one of the bleakest moments of the film, where Bruce Springsteen makes you second-guess whether it was written primarily with George Theiss in mind, or if it’s more so Bruce preparing his family, friends and audience for the inevitable.
And then “I’ll See You in My Dreams” asks us the question of what happens when the inevitable happens. Is it what we’d like to imagine, or is it simply “bones, dirt, clay and turtles all the way down“? Until we find out, though, we’ll have to settle for seeing those we’ve lost every now and then when they pop up in the foreign lands of our dreams. There’s a stunning moment in this sequence where Zimny’s cinematography calls back to “Land of Hope and Dreams” from Madison Square Garden in 2000 in the way it drifts from one E Streeter to the next. And if that wasn’t powerful enough, the sight of Jon Landau clearly saddened by the “magnificence” of this beautiful track should seal it.

We’re taking this thing til we’re all in the box boys. It’s one of the greatest thrills of my life, standing behind that mic with you guys behind me.

I wrote in the album review that “Burnin’ Train” was a brief departure from the notion of history and mortality, but the final song featured in this documentary is indeed preceded by Bruce referring to the magnitude of the beauty of our being.
It’s only right that this finale confirms the documentary’s status as a true sequel to Western Stars, as Bruce’s comment about those moments where “you can feel the hand of God on your shoulder, and you realise how lucky you are to be alive in a world where it’s lucky to love and be loved” is the perfect follow up to his comments last year about “the next day“, as that is why we keep going.
“Burnin’ Train” plays us out over shots of Springsteen and The E Street Band throughout this recording process, but there’s one more surprise left after the credits roll. You can sense during this film that Frank Bruno is here for something more, and we’re shown why with a lovely, final tribute to George Theiss. A lot has happened this year that I didn’t expect, but I never expected to see Bruce Springsteen playing “Baby I” – the first song he and George wrote – alongside his Uncle Frank to bring it all home. What a treat!

Bruce mentioned in his conversation with Eddie Vedder on Letter To You Radio, Episode 2 that he was as excited for the fans to see this video as he is for them to hear the record. After their collaborations for the documentary films Wings For Wheels, The Promise and Western Stars, Bruce truly believes that it’s this that is Thom Zimny’s masterpiece. I won’t oversell it by calling it a masterpiece, but this is a very good, enjoyable, heartwarming return to E Street. Many fans were uncertain as to whether we’d see Bruce and The Band playing together again after the recent solo expeditions and with them not getting any younger, so this album and documentary truly is a gift. If anything, we can look at this film as what the much maligned Blood Brothers documentary filmed and released in 1995 should have been. With no awkward interactions of a band that hadn’t properly dealt with the 1989 firings and segments about boots and hats, this is Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band playing fantastic music and showing their friendship and respect for one another in the best way, and that’s how it should be. Make sure to check it out after you’ve listened to the album!

Rating: 4/5

5 thoughts on “Film Review: Letter To You (2020)

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