Leave it to Springsteen to make letter writing cool again. With his new album, recorded in just five days with the E Street Band at his New Jersey home studio, Bruce Springsteen, who celebrated his 70th birthday last September following a Tony Award–winning run of Springsteen on Broadway, returns to his rock ’n’ roll roots and the showbiz influences running through them.
Springsteen first dropped the news of a new album during a 2019 conversation with Martin Scorsese about the Netflix-released production of Springsteen on Broadway. During their talk, Springsteen referred to artists as “a gateway to a larger experience that’s bigger than yourself and your audience.”
Scorsese saw Springsteen perform for the first time with Robert De Niro in the mid-70s. (Some say that, at the show, De Niro heard Bruce ask a raptured and raucous audience, “Are you talking to me?!,” and that’s how the line made its way into Taxi Driver.) Earlier this year, presenting Scorsese, De Niro, and Al Pacino with the National Board of Review’s prestigious Icon Award, Springsteen said, “They have been my artistic role models since my youth, my mentors at a distance, guiding me in the principles of doing my work.”
Besides working on the new album, during the pandemic Springsteen has made weekly guest-D.J. appearances on his SiriusXM E Street Radio channel. He also joined other Garden State celebrities for the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund TV and streaming broadcast back in April. Asbury Park native Danny DeVito was a part of the telecast as well.
“We need all the comfort we can get right now,” DeVito tells me. “And there’s a truth that Bruce puts down that we all respond to.” The actor likens the physical sequestering we’re all doing to the emotions we often keep tucked away inside. “Bruce enables me to face these feelings and open up,” he says. “When I put that needle to the record, there’s some change that triggers something inside me.”
Edward Norton views him as “one of the great, epic storytellers of all time,” he tells me. “Who understands narrative, stakes, tragedy, comedy, character better than him? And what’s a more cinematic landscape than Darkness on the Edge of Town? [The album is] pure noir.”
“When I put that needle to the record, there’s some change that triggers something inside me,” says Danny DeVito.
It’s not just Springsteen’s rich song canon that distinguishes him and appeals to fellow artists. Every single album is meticulously constructed to tell a specific narrative, much like a novel, a TV show, or a film. He’s equally frustrated fans, band members, and critics, often throwing away surefire hits because they did not properly fit into the overall point he was attempting to make at the time. As Martin Scorsese wrote in the foreword to June Skinner Sawyers’s 2004 essay compilation Racing in the Street: The Bruce Springsteen Reader, “There’s an epic vision at the heart of Bruce Springsteen’s music.”
Norton says, “His voice and his characters became a big part of my fantasies of chasing a bigger life.”
Much of Springsteen’s songwriting was inspired by American Westerns such as John Ford’s The Searchers and monumental gangster movies like The Godfather and Mean Streets. He came up with the title for his great 1975 song “Thunder Road” after spotting the poster for the classic Robert Mitchum movie of the same name. Terrence Malick’s stark 1973 film, Badlands, inspired the title for one of Springsteen’s biggest rockers and led to the Nebraska album, modeled after both the 1955 crime thriller The Night of the Hunter and the 1981 crime drama True Confessions, with Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall. Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath drove an entire album, The Ghost of Tom Joad. One wonders if Springsteen’s iconic line “This gun’s for hire,” from “Dancing in the Dark” (1984), actually came from the 1942 noir crime thriller This Gun for Hire.
What’s a more cinematic landscape than Darkness on the Edge of Town? [The album is] pure noir,” says Edward Norton.
When it was time to produce his first major music video, Springsteen turned to A-list Hollywood helmer Brian De Palma (“Dancing in the Dark”), then indie king John Sayles (“Born in the U.S.A.,” “Glory Days,” “I’m on Fire”), and, later, acclaimed director Jonathan Demme (“Streets of Philadelphia,” “Murder Incorporated”). Jon Landau, Springsteen’s manager and close friend, is also a huge classic-movie buff. Landau introduced Springsteen to the films of heralded Italian director Sergio Leone, famous for his use of extreme close-ups. He’s also the one who made the call to open their Springsteen on Broadway film with a similarly dramatic close-up.
For the 90-minute companion documentary to Letter to You, Springsteen partnered with his longtime collaborator Thom Zimny, who directed Springsteen on Broadway, to offer behind-the-scenes looks at the making of the album as well as footage of live performances of 10 of the tracks.
Springsteen’s returned the favor many times to his silver-screen counterparts, writing award-winning tracks for 1993’s Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks, and 2008’s The Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke. The songs won an Oscar and a Golden Globe, respectively. He also wrote the title track for the 1987 Michael J. Fox–and–Joan Jett rocker, Light of Day. The original script title was Born in the U.S.A., which is where Springsteen got the names for his song and album. Beginning in the 80s, Hollywood began placing prominent references to him in popular mainstream flicks like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Back to School. (Incidentally, Fast Times at Ridgemont High is where a young Sean Penn met, and briefly dated, Bruce’s younger sister Pamela, who was an aspiring actress at the time. Penn remains close with Springsteen.)
Edward Burns is another hard-core tramp with Springsteen influence. Despite Tom Petty’s supplying the original soundtrack, Burns named his 1996 rom-com, with Jennifer Aniston and Cameron Diaz, She’s the One, after Springsteen’s electrically charged 1975 song. And in 1998, for No Looking Back, which happened to star another Jersey boy, Jon Bon Jovi, Burns featured three songs by Springsteen: “One Step Up,” “Valentine’s Day,” and “I’m on Fire.”
Director Chris Columbus (Mrs. Doubtfire, Home Alone) tells me that he was determined to “make it” in film school after seeing Springsteen in concert in the summer of ’78, in his native Ohio, and again in New York City at the Palladium. He ended up finishing his first screenplay that year, which landed him an agent. If not for Springsteen’s influence, he says, he may have ended up like his father, working in an aluminum factory outside Youngstown. Columbus recalls how he’d been waiting his whole life to include a Springsteen song in one of his films, but when finally presented with an original one, for the Harry Potter series, “it just didn’t fit.” The song ended up in last year’s coming-of-age film Blinded by the Light. (DeVito had also hoped Bruce would write him a song, for his 1996 film, Matilda, encouraging him with a copy of the adapted Roald Dahl novel. Unfortunately, it was not to be.)
The List Goes On
Regular listeners to SiriusXM’s E Street Radio know the lineup of rotating guest D.J.’s reads like a V.I.P. guest list of Hollywood bros. Rob Lowe, Kevin Bacon, Ben Stiller, Edward Burns, Edward Norton, Michael J. Fox, Judd Apatow, Stephen King, and Henry Winkler, along with fellow Jersey boys Danny DeVito, Jon Stewart, Brian Williams, and Artie Lange, have all taken their shot at spinning Springsteen classics and stories. Although they’re not close friends, Bruce personally reached out to Lange after hearing about his near suicide back in 2010. According to Lange, just talking to Bruce helped saved his life.
When I asked Rob Lowe what he thought drove Hollywood’s attraction to Springsteen, he said, “His storytelling combined with showmanship—a very rare combination.”
DeVito believes the reason is more personal: “In Hollywood, there’s definitely a distance people have from one another. As an actor, you really don’t know what that person is going to be like, but with a poet, like Bruce, who shows you his heart on his sleeve, you end up … inside. Everyone’s looking for a (real) human being in the world … to drop the barrier.”
When I asked Rob Lowe what he thought drove Hollywood’s attraction to Springsteen, he said, “His storytelling combined with showmanship.”
“There’s always been a theme of brotherhood in Bruce’s work,” says Norton. “What’s a more definitive image of brotherhood in all of popular music than Bruce and Clarence leaning on each other, warriors with their axes, on the cover of Born to Run? It’s not complicated: We all want to be in his band.”
Norton was directing his first movie in New York (Keeping the Faith, with fellow tramp Ben Stiller) when Springsteen “fired back up with the band after the long hiatus,” he says. “I saw all 15 shows that he launched that tour with—I would hurry to wrap in time to make the show. [Bruce and I] both had early versions of the BlackBerry pagers, and I had sent him one set-list suggestion that had played well, and so, for whatever reason, he kept letting me feed ideas in for sequences of songs.” He remembers, “One night [onstage] he said, ‘This is for a friend,’ and did ‘Meeting Across the River’ … which starts with ‘Hey Eddie …’ My 15-year-old self was levitating right out of me. Of course, that’s what he’s doing for the whole crowd, all the time, isn’t he? Connecting you back to your dreams and aspirations.”
DeVito inducted Springsteen into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2008. Two years later, Springsteen inducted DeVito. On his most recent guest-D.J. spot on E Street Radio, DeVito said he admires Springsteen because he “holds that mirror up to your life.” Lowe adds, “He’s writing about the exact same thing I’m dealing with. That’s why his current phase of exploring what it means to live an authentic life, and its profound rewards, is so powerful. I’m right there with him!”
Steve Matoren is a Los Angeles–based writer