Springsteen & I: The Story of Rock's Biggest Fan, and His Fans

by Jason Warburg

They used to call Eric Clapton “God,” but the highest anyone’s ever placed Bruce Springsteen in the pecking order is “The Boss.” This is ironic only insofar as anyone who has ever observed the fervor and absolute devotion of Springsteen’s most loyal fans can attest to the fact that the man has been essentially deified.

springsteenandi_dvd_250As more than a casual fan myself, I have witnessed this firsthand, and the results aren’t always pretty. I remember one particular run-in I had in the early days of the Internet with a fan on the old USENET group rec.music.artists.springsteen who was basically furious with Springsteen for ever making another album after 1978’s Darkness On The Edge of Town. After those first four albums, the guy had this perfect image in his mind of who Bruce Springsteen was supposed to be, and in this fan’s mind he was supposed to stay that person forever, to never grow or change as an artist and a person. Speaking angrily of Bruce’s more exploratory work in the ’80s and ’90s, he said words to the effect of “Bruce left me,” sounding for all the world like a bitter, jilted divorcee.

Fortunately he doesn’t show up in Springsteen & I, Baillie Walsh and Ridley Scott’s love letter to the man, a crowd-sourced documentary splicing together snippets from thousands of video-selfies in which various longtime fans (and the occasional long-suffering family members) attempt to explain with varying degrees of eloquence what Bruce Springsteen and his music mean to them. Their thoughts and stories are interspersed with concert footage of Springsteen and the E Street Band, sometimes simply illustrating the raw passion of Springsteen’s embrace of his own audience, the preacher before his congregation, and at other times revisiting actual incidents from concerts past, now narrated by his fans.

The latter is done with particular pathos in a sequence involving a fan who dressed up as Vegas Elvis and held up a sign at a recent Philadelphia show begging for the chance to sing “All Shook Up” with the Boss. You can guess what happens next, and in its own way this vignette sums up the entire experience of this film, and the person it’s about; it’s insightful, goofy, poetic, overblown, a little odd, deeply empathetic, and in its best moments, knee-weakeningly spectacular.

Another funny sequence features a devoted female fan and her long-suffering British husband, who has been force-fed Springsteen music without ever developing a taste for it, and is visibly resigned to being dragged to one three-hour show after another. His voice is both genuine and in its own way quite sweet; whatever his misgivings, he’s long since accepted that loving his wife requires that he put up with this Bruce guy, too.

Some of the best moments are the quietest; the young Asian female truckdriver sitting in the cab of her rig who talks about how Bruce’s songs of hope for the working class have inspired her, the suburban dad talking while driving about how Bruce’s songs make him feel (“…like I was going through someone’s family photo album and looking at their life, and feeling what they felt… feeling their sadness, and their triumph…”) before being overcome and breaking down weeping as he drives.

The concert clips selected from 40 years of footage are fantastic as well, ranging from a very early clip of Bruce singing “Growin’ Up” solo and acoustic, to recent shows with the now-stadium-sized E Street Band. Footage of “Candy’s Room” from the 1978-9 Darkness tour is especially electric, showing the ferocious energy young Bruce delivered every moment of every night, and that older Bruce still manages to reach back and grasp a few times during every show.

The DVD bonuses are nice as well—some awkward but happy footage of Bruce meeting several of the fans featured in the film after a show, and six songs from a 2012 Hyde Park concert. The latter segment, including a two-song guest appearance by Paul McCartney, is wonderful not so much for the music itself as for expressions and body language. Sir Paul is happy to be there, gives due respect to his host, and has a good time. Standing next to him, Springsteen is visibly thrilled, the still-neurotic superfan standing next to one of his musical idols, singing together, sharing a mike, living out a younger man’s dream.

Which brings me back around to a famous Springsteen quote, from around the time Born In The USA made him a global superstar: “I believe that the life of a rock & roll band will last as long as you look down into the audience and can see yourself, and your audience looks up at you and can see themselves—and as long as those reflections are human, realistic ones.” Standing next to Paul McCartney, Bruce is revealed for what he is and always has been at his core: one of the world’s biggest fans of rock and roll itself.

The fans want Bruce to live his dream, because it’s their dream, too, and they know that he knows that they know it. If that sounds complicated, it really isn’t. Springsteen & I is the perfect title for this film because every passionate Springsteen fan has found a reflection of themselves somewhere in Springsteen’s songs and onstage persona. His words speak to their dreams, and his very human voice feels like it could be their own.

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