[3 December 2013]
Music documentaries are a tricky sell. Fans tend to eat them up simply because of the exclusive behind-the-scenes access provided or new live footage revealed. Casual listeners of the depicted band can usually leave it alone. Unless they’re concert junkies, there’s not a lot compelling your average Joe Schmoe to go see Shine a Light when they can listen to the Rolling Stones online, see them on YouTube, or hear them in a movie trailer every other week. Technology is making it harder and harder to sell the genre to a significantly large audience, even with theaters taking to one-night-only special events to sell tickets.
This makes the new documentary Springsteen and I all the more baffling. The film uses some concert footage from a variety of different shows, but is primarily a fan made endeavor not focusing on Springsteen much at all. Rather, it’s more about the fans.
Co-produced by Ridley Scott Associates and Scott Free Productions, Springsteen and I is made up primarily of home movies shot by Springsteen mega fans. The stories range from personal triumphs brought on by the Boss to once-in-a-lifetime moments with the Boss himself. Some are recorded with professional equipment and others are shot on phones. The back cover of the Blu-ray describes the film as “by the fans and for the fans,” but I’m not so sure who would actually want to watch this brief (77 minutes), uneven music documentary.
I can only think of three target audiences.
1. The Fans
To be as transparent as possible, I am a Bruce Springsteen mega-fan. I’ve written numerous pieces on one of my musical heroes, and I even received the email a year ago asking me to contribute a video to this film. My thought at the time was, “Who am I talking to? Is it a love letter to the Boss, or am I just recording my personal experience like a diary entry?” I didn’t end up submitting anything, primarily because of this unanswered question (and general laziness), but I still don’t know who I would’ve been speaking to in my video after watching dozens of other examples actually used in the film.
While I’m sure it was rewarding for fans to see themselves onscreen if their submission was lucky enough to be chosen, I can’t imagine the excluded group being all too enthralled with those included. Sure, there are a few good stories. A street performer saw Springsteen walking down the street, stopped him kindly, and ended up performing with him in front of an ever-growing crowd for 15 minutes.
Yet many of the stories are silly and even bizarre. A woman’s recounting of her developing sexuality in regard to Springsteen and his music will forever haunt my dreams and absolutely taint a few songs of his in my mind. A fan dressed as Elvis who got to perform on stage with the Boss during a concert is a pretty entertaining tale, especially with the actual footage cut into the retelling. But what I was left wondering when the story ended was why he and his wife told the story while eating cheese steaks on a bench (they didn’t stop eating to speak, either).
Uniting this community isn’t a bad idea in theory, but what the filmmakers seem to have forgotten is we’re already united by the Boss. He’s the central point of our collective joy, and we celebrate that with him in our hearts, minds, and, hopefully, in concert.
2. The Boss
So is he the target audience for Springsteen and I? For a few minutes, I thought he could be. Toward the end, there’s a montage of fans thanking Springsteen for everything he’s done for them. It’s sweet, innocent, and somewhat appropriate, but it’s not something Springsteen would want or need to hear. He already gets enough adulation to stroke his relatively minor ego, making it hard to imagine him sitting down and watching a documentary on The Greatness That is Bruce Springsteen. Nope. Not him. Next.
3. The Unconverted
Perhaps the film was made to win over the uninitiated. I’ve had some experience dealing with Springsteen haters. My best friend despises my favorite musical artist, so it would be nice if there was something I could show him to convince him of the Boss’ greatness. Yet there isn’t, and there never will be. The music is what matters, and the medium is too subjective to use objective reasoning to win someone over. Even if you did, convincing an audience to sit down and watch a movie about an artist they don’t like seems like an impossible ordeal. So no, the unconverted are not the target audience for Springsteen and I.
The film itself is thusly without an audience. I’ll accept it was made “for fans”, but the reasoning behind it is obviously faulty. Not all or even many Springsteen fans should be expected to gravitate toward the film. We don’t need to be told why the Boss is the Boss. We know. We may not have lived the same stories as the people on screen, but we have lived our lives as Springsteen devotees. We have our own stories, our own friends, and our own version of the Boss. We don’t need someone else’s.
While the film may just be moderately entertaining, the disc’s bonus features include some truly valuable artifacts for fans. Four fan-made videos ranging from three to six minutes are included as extras. One is excellent. Two are very good. One is average. The batting average here is pretty solid, and it makes you wonder why the filmmakers didn’t try to make a movie out of short films made about Springsteen rather than fans simply talking to a camera. At the very least, these creative entries would have added an extra, valuable layer to the picture (as well as an extra 15 minutes, making it an acceptable feature length).
Another feature titled “Meet the Fans” is almost like the film’s deleted scenes. The filmmakers talk to some of the fans whose videos were included, and we get a few more stories about the Boss himself.
The true goodies on the disc, though, are the six live performances from Springsteen’s Hard Rock Calling performance in 2012. “Thunder Road” is always a treat to see live while “Because the Night” is a rarity to be treasured. Yet everyone should be able to agree seeing two rock ‘n roll legends is better than one. Both Springsteen and Paul McCartney perform “When I Saw Her Standing There” and “Twist and Shout”, rounding out a terrific batch of bonus features. These uninterrupted live recordings are more powerful than anything that was or could have been said in the film’s interviews. Fans, non-fans, and even the Boss himself can see that.