Bruce Springsteen looks old. He doesn’t seem like he’s old — at 71, he appears to be in better physical shape than most of us were at 21. Judging from the vigor he shows in Letter to You, Thom Zimny’s documentary (it begins streaming on Apple TV on Oct. 23rd), you sense that he could walk onstage right now and easily knock out a four-hour live show, if live shows were still a thing. His songwriting hasn’t diminished, as this look at the recording of the album of the same name proves; the man can still bring it when the muse blesses him. Ditto the E Street Band, all of whom have joined Springsteen in his home studio to turn this collection of new songs and dusted-off ones (some dating to his John-Hammond-demo-tape years) into an all-hands-on-deck joint.
But there are moments in this making-of portrait — purposeful moments — where you see the years etched on his face, the remnants of all the life experiences he’s had, the battle scars left behind. Springsteen has aged like a fine wine. But he’s definitely aged, and the more Zimny drops in snippets of Bruce’s young, bearded and wild years, the more you note the contrast between the feral dynamo rushing around stages circa ’75 and the guy standing before you. He’s no longer that rebel from the Born to Run cover. Springsteen is now a statesman, with all the authority and gravitas that implies. It’s a stature that fits as well to what he’s trying to do with this project almost as much as the gorgeous, stark black-and-white cinematography. He’s got a lot on his mind, and a lot of it deals with time, and old friends, and loss.
“I’m in the middle of a 45-year conversation with these men and women I’m surrounded by,” Springsteen says at the outset, as E Streeters file in with grins and gear. Nestled together in a cozy cabin on the snowy acreage of Springsteen’s property — less backstreets, more backwoods — they listen to their boss strum out melodies and sing out lyrics. Then they take their places and do what they do best, putting muscle and flesh on his musical skeletons until they’re bona fide, USDA-approved rock & roll tunes. If Letter for You was nothing but that for 90 minutes, simply a front row seat to seeing Springsteen lead the ultimate bar band “as a well-oiled machine” through new music over a five-day period, that’d be enough. For some folks, it’s more than just “enough” — it’s manna. There are moments when the camera lingers on these veteran musicians, jotting down notes and feeling their way through their parts until it’s all one integrated, seamless whole, that come close to fawning. The film doubles as Springsteen’s love letter to them.
Yet the past, and not just his shared one with the group he’s led for decades, is what’s really driving the album and, by extension, the doc. This is nothing new for Springsteen, who’s been in a fertile do-look-back mode for the past few years — both his autobiography and his Broadway show mined his backstory and back catalog for colloquial, uncharacteristically confessional art. Even Western Stars, Springsteen’s 2019 retro-Cali-pop solo album (and the Zimny-directed performance film featuring that collection of sunny open-road ditties) felt like part of a larger reckoning with a legacy of influences, choices, roads not taken. Letter to You continues this reflective period. “Play it like Danny Federici!” Springsteen yells in honor of the late E Street member as keyboardist Roy Bittan approaches a glockenspiel (“His ghost is haunting us”), while cutaways to Jake Clemons butt up against clips of his uncle Clarence in full swing. A trio of older songs he originally demo-ed solo in the early 1970s, back when he was considered the second coming of Bob — “Dylanesque” doesn’t do justice to how indebted they are to Bruce’s hero — now get the full Rosalita-operatic treatment. Bits of vintage sounds, including doo-wop harmonies and handclaps, work their way in to the material. Snapshots of friends, family, fellow classic-rock apostles from long ago keep rotating into the montages.
It’s the death of George Theiss, however, that hangs the heaviest here. Theiss was Springsteen’s comrade-in-arms in his first band, the Castiles. The two were inseparable in the mid-’60s, then there were fights and falling-outs, successes and failures, on-again and off-again years — the usual things that mark a 50-year friendship. When Theiss passed away in 2018, Springsteen realized he was not only the most famous Castile, but the only surviving member left. Springsteen recounts all of this in a voice that’s a mix of sentimental last-call philosopher, Jersey Shore Zen master and be-bop-a-lula sage. And whether you love these Tao of Bruce koans or feel a little goes long way with them, the message is the same: Maybe everything that dies never fully comes back. That realization is all over Last Man Standing and Ghosts, two of the album’s strongest and most affecting cuts. But the experience of staring down mortality colors the entire affair here, from the shadow-filled studio corners to snowy winter landscapes — and rendered in such beautifully stark black-and-white images that you think Springsteen and the E Street Band walked straight into an Ansel Adam print, only heightens the mournfulness.
There’s sorrow and there’s pity in Letter to You, but there’s also joy, and that’s what stands out the most after the tape stops and that final chord rings out. The single most recurring sight in Zimny’s movie, after the repeated scenes of men and women of a certain age getting lost in the music, is Springsteen pouring shots for his bandmates, engineers and manager Jon Landau. He toasts the people before him, the people who inspired him, the people who are no longer there. Mostly, he toasts to the fact that they can all still raise their glasses and raise their spirits by playing together. Eat, drink, be merry and come in on the second chorus with that meaty guitar sound today, because tomorrow we might be gone. You could mistake the movie as a no-country-for-old-men eulogy. It’s really a compliment to the album’s idea that the past is always with us — but we still have the present, and though we may not be getting any younger, we can keep raging, raging against the dying of the light.