From Hot Rods to Heartbreak: Bruce Springsteen and 'Baby It’s You'
Baby It’s You pushes past high school’s safe spaces to confront the audience with an imperfect world.
Baby It's YouDirector: John Sayles
Cast: Rosanna Arquette, Vincent Spano, Joanna Merlin
Studio: Double Play
US date: 1983-03-04 (General release)
UK date: 1984-10-26 (General release)
In his 1983 film Baby It’s You, director John Sayles underscores his story of two New Jersey teenagers mediating the changes from high school to college during the turbulent '60s with anachronistic Bruce Springsteen songs. Why does Sayles choose to use songs that are not from the ‘60s, and specifically Bruce Springsteen ones for his soundtrack? Springsteen’s music seems to serve as an intertext for Sayles’ story. Both the film and Springsteen’s music focuses on the lives of New Jersey teenagers and tackle the larger ideas of “nostalgia.”
Through this anachronistic music and the film’s choice to tell the story of pre and post-high school life, Sayles reverts the ideas and images of a typical “nostalgia film.” American “nostalgia films" present the ‘50s or ‘60s in a static romanticized light, such as Grease or American Graffiti, which never moves beyond the high school walls. Sayles opens Baby It’s You with familiar ‘60s images of teenage romance, prom night, sneaking kisses in the school hallway, and car races, but then dissolves into the confusion of post-graduate life.
The key to this dissolution of nostalgia is Sayles’ placement of Springsteen’s songs in chronological order, spanning from his debut in 1972 to the height of his career in 1978. Elizabeth M. Seymour’s article “Where Dreams Are Found and Lost: Springsteen, Nostalgia and Identity” from the book Bruce Springsteen, Cultural Studies, and the Runaway American Dream traces Springsteen’s canon chronologically to argue that he dismantles his initial nostalgic ideals. She defines them by specific periods, Period One: Setting the Scene and Period Two: Darkness Creeps In. By using Seymour’s periodic analysis, I read Springsteen’s nostalgic rejection as an intertext to underscore Sayles’ narrative construction of pre and post-high school life. In other words, Sayles’ film and Springsteen’s lyrical landscape present mirror images−they both transform to dismantle their initial nostalgic imagery, moving from the romanticized naiveté of teenagehood to the post-high school adult complexities of class, work, and love.
The beginning of Baby It’s You employs the music of what Seymour considers Period One: Setting the Scene, Springsteen’s first two albums Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, These albums consist of “party songs, bar band music and solid rock with classic anti-authoritarian themes that aren’t dark and introspective. It is the voice of adolescents avoiding and rebelling from authority so that they can go out and have some fun—a truly '50s-'60s theme” (66). Greetings and The Wild both celebrate the life of kids beginning to find their way in the world. The songs are quixotic visions of nightlife on the streets with teenagers running to escape authoritative figures in search of romance and adventure. Sayles weaves such imagery into the film as the songs compliment the opening scenes of Jill and Sheik’s teenage escapades typical in other '50s or ‘60s nostalgia films. We see them racing in hot rods and visiting nighttime Jersey hot spots. The pair skips school to go to the Asbury Park beach, a key locale in Springsteen’s musical and personal geography.
The first Springsteen song Sayles uses is “It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City” from Greetings. The lines “I had skin like leather and the diamond-hard look of a cobra” comment on Sheik’s physicality. Sheik embodies Springsteen’s Greetings characters, the “strong images of young, dark, loner men searching for their ideal car and girl. His men are young, vibrant, posers mimicking Hollywood heroes” (66). He wants to evoke the secure masculinity of cinematic heroes like Brando, mentioned in the song, to secure a date with Jill.
Sheik also models himself after Frank Sinatra. Sheik admires Sinatra for his taste in the “best clothes, best cars, best women.” He turns to Sinatra’s specific old-fashioned manhood as a way to redefine his identity and rise above the means of his background. Sheik’s admiration will probe him to move to Hollywood to become a singer to hopefully strike fame and usher into a higher class. But in anti-nostalgic Sayles tradition, Sheik’s dreams are squelched and he is incapable of escaping his lower class.
Springsteen’s character in the song takes pride in his individualism and recognizes the difficulties in assimilating with the rhythms and culture of the city, just as Sheik struggles to fit in the school yet still retains an air of confidence. This sequence establishes Springsteen as the conduit for Sheik, as most of these songs read as his inner dialogue or frustrations. Springsteen, being the voice of the marginalized loner and other, as well as a “working class hero” aptly aligns with Sheik’s characterization. Several identifications in this scene mark Sheik’s otherness: he is the new kid, a rebel kicked out of his old school, forbidden from the cafeteria during this period, and is wearing a suit.
“The E Street Shuffle” from The Wild, The Innocent, & the E. Street Shuffle. The song plays as Sheik and Jill enter Joey D’s, a bar filled with colorful Springsteenian characters such as young teenagers making out, blue-collar workers drinking beers, and members of the mafia. The seeds of the class differences that eventually sever Jill and Sheik are laid out in this scene, as the upper-class Jill looks around apprehensively, out of her element. “E Street Shuffle” is a party song that depicts hot Jersey nights in barroom halls with characters like Sloppy Sue and Big Bones Billy. Sheik is the schoolboy pops that “pull[s] out all the stops on a Friday night”, the song reflects his overwhelming desire to impress Jill and assimilate her into her environment.
Sayles aptly sets “She’s The One” from Springsteen’s album Born to Run in the middle of the film. “She’s the One” exists as a turning point for both Sayles and Springsteen. Seymour defines Born to Run as a transitional album, where Springsteen “explicitly pulls together and clarifies some of the images, narratives and themes from the first two albums and starts to develop a more critical distance from his stories” (66). For Sayles, adult complexities and the threat of violence begin to take hold of the narrative.
Springsteen appropriates typical '50s images and ideas in this album, crystallized on the cover image where he dons an Elvis fan club pin and James Dean greaser jacket. He infuses his childhood influences of rock and roll’s golden age -- mimicking Roy Orbison’s vocals and sonically evoking Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. Yet, “while the basic nostalgia, very romantic and restorative, remains the same, we begin to get hints of a more complicated, reflective, mixed nostalgia”, (66) Seymour places Born to Run within Period Two: Darkness Creeps In.
The thematic elements of the working-class grind slink into the forefront during songs on the album like “Night” where the narrator laments the daily nine-to-five grind with a boss that constantly “gives him hell”. An undercurrent of violence permeates through the songs “Jungleland” and “Meeting Across the River”. The hoods of “Meeting” head over the Hudson River to meet their New York mafia connection. The desperate low-level criminal urges his cohort to stuff a gun in his pocket, “it’ll look like you’re carrying a friend”. Springsteen settles in this new urban setting for his haunting epic “Jungleland”. Springsteen sings of a gang member named Rat who is chased by police officers all night and is eventually gunned down.
Born to Run’s undercurrent of violence and darkness infuses Sayles images. Sayles uses “She’s the One” to underscore a prom nightmare, rather than the romantic and pivotal night of teenage dreams. Sayles reverts nostalgia film by separating his couple; Sheik is banned from prom and engages in a robbery whereas Jill discovers her friend attempting suicide. Sheik’s nighttime rendezvous amongst a dark and urban landscape with visuals such as fog and halogen lights, blood and glass, and the chain-link fences of the gritty Trenton neighborhood, craft a dismal atmosphere evoking Springsteen’s inner-city epics. I read the lines, “With her soft French cream, standing in the doorway like a dream” as Sheik’s imaginings of what prom would have been--seeing his beautiful girlfriend in her dress for the first time. The bittersweet innocence of their teenage courtship in the opening scenes takes a sharp apprehensive turn during this sequence. Therefore, Sayles also uses “She’s the One” as a transitional marker, for the realities of adulthood come crashing down upon their graduation.
Springsteen amplifies Born to Run’s darker elements on the Darkness on the Edge of Town album. As Springsteen’s autobiography confirms, “I was on new ground and searching for a tone somewhere between Born to Run’s spiritual hopefulness and seventies cynicism… I wanted [my characters] to feel older, weathered, wiser but not beaten. The sense of daily struggle increased; hope became a lot harder to come by… I steered away from escapism and placed my people in a community under siege” (146). Hope becomes harder to come by for Sheik, as his high school dreams of becoming the next Frank Sinatra are crushed when all he can obtain is a dishwashing job at a seedy restaurant that lets him lip-sync to Sinatra once a week. Sayles mirrors Springsteen as he follows his partying teens out of the clubs and into the drudges of working life where they confront personal issues. The last anachronistic Bruce Springsteen music used is "Adam Raised a Cain”.
Springsteen’s tumultuous relationship with his father inspired “Adam Raised a Cain”, and the songs use in the film provides a rich intertextual relationship to Sheik’s presented paternal relationship. Our first and only glimpse of Sheik’s father occurs early in the film as he sits on the couch drinking and vacantly staring at the television. His sofa sits between two doorways where Sheik and his mother stand. This symbolically positions the father as the locus of the household. His wife and son must constantly orbit around his turbulent hostility. The scene establishes Sheik preparing for his date with Jill by putting on his customary fancy suit. His father questions Sheik’s choice of clothing, threatening to “rip his lungs out” if he is earning money through Italian mafia connections. Sheik chides his father, telling him that he will be happy “as long as I don’t end up like you”. Although Sheik fantasized of artistic success, he still ends up falling into the trap of blue-collar work and his dishwashing job is no loftier than his father’s as a garbage man.
The brief images of Sheik’s father embody the visions Springsteen painted of his father in his introductory stories and autobiography. He describes what he would call his “nightly séances”, nursing a beer at the kitchen table with the lights off for hours on end. The couch in Sheik’s household functions as the Springsteen kitchen table, an epicenter for fathers to brood about their broken lives. Sheik's cramped and oppressive home filled with high tensions, akin to Springsteen’s in Freehold contrasts the images of Jill’s upper-middle class, spacious and well-decorated home. The framing of her family life positions Jill’s parents on both sides of her at the dinner table, signaling the equality of their relationship and situating Jill as the loving center of their world. Sayles uses the oppositional images of Jill and Sheik’s home lives to reinforce the class differences between these characters.
The “Adam Raised a Cain” sequence transmogrifies key figures in Springsteen’s iconography -- cars and women. In Springsteen’s earlier periods, the car and female were a "powerful images of freedom and emancipation”, (69) and Sheik and Jill’s means of escaping oppressive authorities to Jersey entertainment. The car was Sheik’s prized possession, an object to validate his masculinity. Jill was the “love object of his Casanova dreams” (67). Sheik fixates on Jill as a prize to be won, an idealized embodiment of his hope for a better future. Females in these early Springsteen songs were often depicted as desired objects because “they give men back the humanity lost in the brutal working world which ultimately dashes his working-class heroes’ dreams” (64). Sheik confronts such brutal realities as he gets fired from his job. We see photographs of Jill strung about his Miami apartment as he packs to embark on a road trip to visit her at college, Sarah Lawrence, seeking salvation through her (hopeful) acceptance of a marriage proposal.
Sawyer argues that the Darkness album is "used to focus our attention on the falling apart of life’s expectations. His earlier dream of escaping with his love on the open streets of the highway has turned into a more jaded nostalgic vision in which is dreams of freedom are lost” (69). Sheik turns to his nostalgic object of the car, which brought him freedom and joy during high school, to obtain Jill, only to find that the highway now leads to disappointment. Once again, the narratives of Sheik and Sayles follow the same trajectory. Furthermore, Darkness on the Edge of Town is arguably a continuation of the young runaways’ lives in “Born to Run” and “Thunder Road”. Sheik evokes the narrators of those songs, escaping his oppressive and impoverished home life to the open highway for a place in the Miami sun. All that was missing was his Wendy or Mary.
When his dreams do not come to fruition, he turns to Jill as these figures. These women, as well as Jill in Baby It's You begin as the idolized beacon of hope, a damsel in distress waiting to be rescued by the working-class hero with an impressive car. But Darkness on the Edge of Town presents a mature, and well-rounded perspective outlook on Born to Run’s female characters. In “Racing in the Street”, a spiritual sequel of “Born to Run”, he explores what happens to the woman when the “dream of finding love and hot-rodding it out of town to a better place in the sun is unfulfilled” (69) Wendy is left sitting on the porch in despair over her torn dreams of what could have been. Springsteen begins to see women as more than redemptive objects.
In their last confrontation, Sheik hears Jill as a person and not as a romanticized construction or the immediate answer to a better life. Sheik discovers that Jill does not want to be his Wendy. Jill fears that if she marries him she will become a lonely and bitter housewife who gave up on her theatrical dreams.
Jill: What do you want from me? You want me to quit school and get married to you and have kids?
Sheik: What is so awful about that?
Jill: That’s not who I want to be! I don’t know what I want to be but it’s not that.
Sheik: When we were in high school...
Jill: We’re not in high school anymore!
Sayles specifically chooses this period to underly where Sheik’s idealized expectations of “winning” Jill are rejected, his dreams of both work and love are lost. At the beginning of the sequence, Sheik retains the childish romantic ideals of “Born to Run” and “Thunder Road”, as well as antiquated post-World War II gender constructions found in Springsteen’s Period of Setting the Scene. Hence, Sayles uses Darkness on the Edge of Town to underscore Sheik’s own enlightenment.
Baby It’s You pushes past high school’s safe spaces to confront the audience with an imperfect world, where teenage dreams don’t come true, relationships don’t last, and life won’t be like the songs you listened to on the radio. Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. aptly introduces the New Jersey teenagers whose only objective is to race in the streets and go to the beach. Sayles and Springsteen follow their teenage characters as they run from New Jersey’s “death trap” to chase their dreams, only to be confronted with the darkness of the real world that ultimately keeps their false, romanticized ideals at bay.