The Boss on film: a brief history of Bruce Springsteen on screen

The Boss on film: a brief history of Bruce Springsteen on screen

Feel-good British comedy Blinded by the Light might be the most complete Springsteen cinematic experience so far but it’s not the first

Bruce Springsteen in 1978
Bruce Springsteen in 1978. Photograph: Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images

Music biopics are in no danger of going away. Bohemian Rhapsody’s box office earnings and awarded trophies have either secured or condemned us to more, depending on your point of view. But Bruce Springsteen, the Boss, the Boardwalk Balladeer, “Steinbeck in Leather,” rock n’ roll’s future (according to Jon Landau in 1974) has yet to go the Ray or Rocketman route.

As a longtime admirer (who just happened to grow up in the same New Jersey town as the Boss, don’t make me present documented evidence) I’d like to believe that Springsteen’s humble, working class attitude is keeping eager Hollywood producers at bay. It’s one thing to present an autobiography in story and song in a successful one-man Broadway show. Eight shows a week are practically punching a factory clock! But technicolor big screen picture show treatment just doesn’t jibe with the persona.

It’s part of why Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light, the adaptation of Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir Greetings From Bury Park, is better than a Springsteen biopic. What could be more like a Springsteen song itself than the struggles of a kid caught between worlds, finding his voice and direction through rock n’ roll?

Most critics (though not all!) have found Blinded By The Light to be agreeable fun, and it may just end up a sleeper hit. While we wait for that inevitable biopic, this is far from Springsteen’s first dalliance with movies. One does not become an internationally recognized icon from radio play alone.

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Though extremely hard to find today unless you have a VHS player, Springsteen was the big winner in the documentary film No Nukes, released in 1980. It captured a series of concerts in New York’s Battery Park and Madison Square Garden shortly after the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor. A murderer’s row of late 70s soft rockers like Jackson Browne, The Doobie Brothers, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Bonnie Raitt and James Taylor performed, but Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band brought the energy. The film, which played in midnight showings for years, came out just a few months before the release of Springsteen’s double album The River. He was establishing himself as an artist you just had to see live, and, in a pre-MTV era, the energetic No Nukes clips were substantial corroborating evidence.

Four years later Springsteen went from respected rocker to mainstream superstardom. Born In The USA, apart from being misinterpreted by Ronald Reagan, hit the zeitgeist in all the right ways, especially on film.

At a time when music videos were far from respectable, Springsteen collaborated with some of the era’s great auteurs. First was Dancing In The Dark, a peppy pop tune in which the Boss is snapping his fingers on stage in tight denim and rolled-up cuffs. He locks eyes with a young Courtney Cox (“Heyyyy baby!”) and helps her onto the stage. Go rewatch it, it’s adorable. The energetic short was directed by Brian De Palma, the only music video on his resume.

Soon thereafter came the title track, Born in the USA, directed by John Sayles. There’s Springsteen again on stage (sleeveless denim jacket, headband, shaggier hair) but weaved in and out with images of blue collar America: factories, flags, used cars, the prom. It’s a melancholy mix of patriotism and pathos, paired well with the story of a Vietnam vet unable to find his footing upon returning from war.

Sayles, fresh from The Brother From Another Planet and with the coal miner drama Matewan in his sights, came back to direct Glory Days, the nostalgia-soaked hit in which Springsteen is a daydreaming machinist reminiscing of his baseball triumphs. If an alien came down from Neptune and asked “Who is the Bruce Springsteen?” these six earth minutes would be the most succinct way to get the point across. Sayles rounded out his Springsteen trilogy with I’m On Fire, in which we were reminded that Springsteen wasn’t just a good time rockin’ buddy at the bar, he also had smoldering, leading man looks.

Around this same time Springsteen joined his E Street associate Little Steven (Steven Van Zandt) in his Artists Against Apartheid initiative. The protest song Sun City isn’t remembered quite as fondly as Glory Days, but it did bring together an extraordinary, diverse group of musicians. Miles Davis, Joey Ramone, Lou Reed and The Fat Boys don’t get together every day. The video was directed by Jonathan Demme, which kicked off a relationship that lasted until the end of the film-maker’s life.

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Most notably, Demme asked Springsteen to write a song for Philadelphia while the movie was still being shot. For an artist like Springsteen, who had and, unfortunately, still has a subsection of fans prone to machismo, one can not overstate the importance of a first person song about Aids in 1994. Streets of Philadelphia won Bruce Springsteen an Oscar, and Demme shot the accompanying music video in which a perambulating Springsteen does not lip-synch.

A great many of Springsteen tunes have made their way into movies over the years. A common misconception is that Secret Garden was written for Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire, but it was actually a then new track bundled on a Greatest Hits collection that Crowe cherry picked for the Tom Cruise film.

Other than that, there hasn’t really been an iconic use of a Springsteen tune in a movie or on television. Unless Hungry Heart in The Wedding Singer counts? If I had to pick a favorite, though, it’d either be Adam Raised A Cain in the series finale of Sons of Anarchy (as Jax zooms off to find his destiny) or Meryl Streep tearing the roof off the wedding reception hall with My Love Will Not Let You Down at the end of Jonathan Demme’s Ricki and the Flash. (This is a particularly fun one, as the song is a deep cut that went unreleased for over a decade.) Chronologically, this is the final non-documentary scene in Demme’s filmography.

The lack of a quintessential use of a classic might mean Springsteen’s songs are too big to be repurposed. (Sorry, Blinded By The Light, but Born To Run and Thunder Road will outlive you.) But that doesn’t mean his songs can’t inspire a film. Award ten trivia points to anyone who remembers Sean Penn’s directorial debut The Indian Runner, a 1991 drama starring Viggo Mortensen and David Morse as brothers on opposite sides of the law. It was, in fact, based on Springsteen’s 1982 tune Highway Patrolman.

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So with all of these Hollywood connections, why has Springsteen never acted in a movie? I guess he’s just not interested, beyond a few cameos. He popped up on an episode of the show Lillyhammer as an undertaker, but that was because his pal Little Steven was the star, and even directed that episode. His most memorable role, if you can call it that, was when he played himself, or at least a fantasy version, in Stephen Frears’ version of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity.

“I want more,” the lovesick John Cusack says to his imaginary rocker friend. He’s talking about encounters with his ex-girlfriends, but it works as a plea from all Springsteen fans. “If that’s what you’re lookin’ for,” the Boss mumbles as he noodles on his electric guitar. Hopefully for us, there’s still plenty coming.