FILM REVIEW || Director Baillie Walsh | Starring Bruce Springsteen | Length 124 minutes [see note at the end] | Seen at home (Blu-Ray), Friday 15 November 2013 || My Rating likeable
I can imagine that when one is making a music-based documentary, the question of whether it has ‘crossover’ potential is a big one. So I’m not exactly sure that if you’re not a fan of Bruce Springsteen you will gain any particular insight from Springsteen & I. This is a fan-made paean to the star popularly known as ‘the Boss’ and doesn’t exactly make clear what makes him different from any other middle-of-the-road stadium-filling rock musician. However, it’s all very likeable, so unless you harbour some strong antipathy to Springsteen’s blue-collar rock, it should at least be diverting.
One suspects that the key to Bruce’s popularity is his appeal to a broad range of listeners. His music tends towards the anthemic, making it particularly suitable for huge stadiums, and though we see some blurry (and all too brief) footage of a young Bruce playing to a smaller crowd in his earliest 1970s days, the focus is very much on his long-lasting appeal up to the present day. The fact that he works so hard at providing a good show for his audience is hinted at in possibly the least adulatory of the fan submissions, from a woman interviewing her weary British husband about how his enjoyment of the various European cities she drags him to has always been blighted by these epically long concerts. But it’s a warm-hearted account that probably comes closest to my own experience (my wife is a huge fan of the Boss), of grudging respect at the endurance of a man now in his 60s and still putting out energetic three-and-a-half-hour live sets for his fans.
Aside from those brief interpolations of concert footage, all the videos presented here are submitted by fans and recorded in varying quality, whether using camcorders and cameras, or on laptops and phones. And for the most part, they tend towards the adoringly confessional, presented in language that ranges from matter-of-fact to flowery and poetic. It’s not exactly a hagiography, because there’s little sense of biography to the film in the first place: this is not the place to find out about the ups and downs of Bruce’s career, how he achieved his fame, or recorded his albums. Even more than the similarly adoring One Direction: This Is Us earlier this year, Springsteen & I is all about the fan experience. It’s also the best case scenario for how I imagine a crowdsourced documentary might pan out (this one didn’t seek its funding that way though, it just asked fans to submit footage).
What makes the documentary then are those fans and how one responds to their stories. I would choose to draw a veil over the middle-aged man driving his car being brought to tears thinking of Bruce’s music, or the desperately heartbroken young man, or the older woman floridly recounting into her laptop what sounds like a carefully scripted essay (for it is the most eloquent of the submissions), and focus instead on the less ostentatious submissions. There’s a young Asian woman (a truck driver, it turns out) speaking about how his music gets her through all-night drives. There’s a working-class British man telling of how he and his wife had scrimped and saved to fly to Madison Square Gardens, NYC to see Bruce perform and had encountered great kindness courtesy of Bruce’s management. There’s an impromptu gig with a street musician in Belgium (well, somewhere vaguely Northern European). And best of all is the story, supported by footage, of Bruce duetting with an Elvis impersonator in Philadelphia, much to Springsteen’s evident bemusement.
Given the way the documentary was created, there’s not a great deal to commend the artistry, but it’s edited together without too many obvious longueurs. How you respond to it is very much down to how generously you feel towards Springsteen as a subject. One could make a case that this is a film about the nature of music fandom, and it is interesting on that level, but I can’t imagine it’s going to make any neophytes into converts to its subject. Instead, it’s just over an hour in the company of a range of passionate people talking about a subject that fascinates them, and I think that’s the best way to begin any documentary project.
Note: The documentary proper is really only around 75 minutes in length. The rest of the running time in the original theatrical release was given over to footage from his 2012 London Hyde Park gig which ended with him being joined on stage by Paul McCartney. This footage, and additional interviews with the fans, are presented as a bonus feature on the home release.