There’s something about Bruce Springsteen’s Letter To You – an hour and a half long Apple TV+ special that details the four days of recording sessions behind Bruce and the E Street band’s 20th album – that feels eerily like a eulogy. Shot in stark black and white and dwelling on the sad revelation that Springsteen is now the only living member of The Castiles (the stadium star’s pre-fame teenage band, who he respectfully calls “my first and greatest school of rock”), what starts as a behind-the-scenes look at some studio sessions quickly becomes more weighty. Sure, there are great songs, celebratory shot glasses at the end of every day and smiles traded between old pals, but more than anything this is a mournful look back over a life peppered with loss, from the Irish wakes Springsteen attended as a six year old in his hometown of Freehold to the deaths of beloved E Street Band members Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici.
Things begin cheerfully enough. Bruce is shacked up with his gang of bandmates, including wife Patti Scialfa, in his New Jersey home studio. It’s autumn 2019 but the weather is decidedly wintry. Outside the snow is deep and all-enveloping, and inside everyone is doing their best to keep cosy; guitarist Steven Van Zandt’s approach to this is to wrap up like an end-of-the-boardwalk fortune teller in one of his trademark patterned scarves. “I’m in the middle of a 45-year conversation with these men and women I’m surrounded by,” explains Springsteen in a voiceover heavy with gravitas. “And with some of you.” He then introduces the band, one by one, including those members “in absentia” while clips of Clemons and Federici flash across the screen. It’s been a hell of a long time since they all started out, is the point Springsteen is trying to make here, but he also wants you to know that it’s been hardly any time at all.
At times, the film acts like an extended music video and we see Springsteen and the band running through numbers from the new album with deft professionalism. Everything sounds great; there isn’t a chord, note or vocal out of place. “The E Street Band is a finely tuned instrument of great flexibility and power,” comes Springsteen’s voice again. “They can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” But more interesting than the fact that this is a damn fine group – something we all knew already – is the light Springsteen flashes onto the stories behind the songs. We discover that three tracks that make up the new record were written 50 years ago, a line to the past that predates even his debut album, 1973’s ‘Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.’. When he talks about the songs that are about loss, ‘Last Man Standing’, ‘Ghosts’ and ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’, there’s a sorrow that’s hard to shake.
Springsteen was 70 years old when this was filmed last year. He looks older. He wears glasses sometimes and doesn’t smile as much as you’d like him too. Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Letter To You’ might finish with him looking for the hope within the darkness, but when he says “there’s only so much time left,” it’s a stark reminder that everyone – even legends like Springsteen – won’t be around for ever.
- Director: Thom Zimny
- Starring: Bruce Springsteen, Roy Bittan, Nils Lofgren
- Release date: October 22 (Apple TV+)