Documentary Review: Bruce summons the E-Street Band to produce “Letter to You”

Somewhere early on in Bruce Springsteen’s latest “gather musicians in my barn to cut a record” documentary, “Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You,” the big question he invites us to ask of him becomes clear.

What becomes the pop star in winter?

Not just literal winter, of the “Hey guys, it’s SNOWING” exclamation from The Boss as “Jersey weather” Jersey winter sets in around them on his farm, in his recording studio barn in his beloved New Jersey.

Do you go on the road and stay there, like Willie and Dylan? Do you try your hand at other forms of writing, or keep composing songs for a shrinking fanbase? Have you worn out your ability to reinvent yourself, or do you keep looking for new frontiers?

Springsteen may have run through every single one of those options. And yet he remains the consummate artist who “must be heard.” In the words of the fiction writer Harlan Ellison, “I have no mouth and I must scream.”

As Springsteen, reciting from his poetic/quasi-pretentious liner-notes-run-amok narration, sets up each song in the set — reflecting on this friend from his first band (The Castilles) passing, on others he’s lost, on “the debt I still owe my Freehold (NJ) brothers-in-arms,” on how “pop was always a raucous meditation,” his “45 year long conversation” with The E-Street Band, both a finely tuned motor and an outfit that can still “float like a butterfly, and sting like a bee” — you can’t help but wonder if there’s a better venue for this conversation, this “letter.”

Sure, he’s proven all he ever needs to prove, and then some, on the road. He’s dominated Broadway. Sold millions of records in his day. But this film and his last one, a doc about a C&W bend in the road on his musical journey (“Under Western Stars”) feels stiff, stale, self-serving and self-conscious.

Of course it’s in black and white. But at least he’s not wearing an ill-suited cowboy hat.

The songs are a pleasantly-forgettable collection in the usual Springsteen keys and time signatures and sound awfully similar to earlier works in his restless Jersey soul canon.

He and the band are doing what they love to do, in a low-impact/less-effort “comforts of home” way. It’s “not a job, it is a calling” he narrates, “a vocation.” But in the arid air of a recording studio the music loses its life, the “conversation” with the audience is absent and the “letter” really does feel like a letter — a little over-familiar, a bit long-winded.

“I took all the sunshine and pain,” he sings, rhyming it with “happiness and pain,” stretching the Big Noun in the title tune an extra syllable or two, as he is wont to do.

“I sent it in my Le-HE-ter to you.”

He preaches from Book of Pop Revelations, “life in 180 seconds or less,” and sings “As Ben E. King’s (“Stand by Me”) fills the air, baby that’s the power of prayer.”

There’s a little interplay with the band, a few “notes” after this or that take of the tunes.

“Roy (Bittan) don’t play it up higher, just don’t play it so LOW.”

But there’s a lot more narration than banter. Ho. Hum.

The idea of anybody staying friends with people you’ve worked with half a century is a miracle. And we all get old, reflective and sentimental, Sundance. No shame or dishonor in that.

“We’re taking this thing til we’re all in the box,” is Springsteen’s toast as they wrap things up. An artist’s compulsion to keep making art is to be revered.

But if you’re known for being the world’s greatest live act, maybe that’s how you present your new songs to the faithful (he had a hand-picked “audience” for “Under Western Stars,” in the barn) — in a roadhouse, drinks clinking and conversation murmuring, hoots or muted applause road-testing every single song, a “narration” that’s more improvised and less self-conscious.

He’s not the head-case Dylan became, not the sell-out Jimmy Buffett perfected, not an oldies act like every contemporary that doesn’t fit those first two comparisons.

Is there no one in his time-tested circle who can tell him, “Yeah, let’s get the band back together, but go out among THE PEOPLE when we do?”

MPAA Rating: unrated, alcohol

Cast: Bruce Springsteen, Little Steven Van Zandt, Roy Bittan, Max Weinberg, Nils Lofgren, Patti Scialfa, Jake Clemons, Garry Tallent.

Credits: Thom Zimny, script.narration by Bruce Springsteen. An Apple TV+ release.

Running time: 1:26

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