Lit

Book Review: Springsteen as Soundtrack Reveals the Singer/Songwriter as Auteur

Springsteen as Soundtrack
By Caroline Madden
McFarland Books, 2020
242 pp

Caroline Madden is a film reviewer and fellow Bruce Springsteen fan. She has written a critical analysis of how Springsteen’s music “intersects with the moving image” in more than 200 films and television shows. In her new book, she focuses intensively on 13 cinematic works: 11 films and two TV series.

Madden’s excellent introductory essay positions Springsteen squarely as an auteur himself, in the cinematic nature of many of his narrative songs. His albums Nebraska (1982) and Devils and Dust (2005) and the boxed set Tracks (1998), in particular, provide stories of characters straight out of the movie genres that influenced his songwriting. Although some critics have tagged Springsteen to literary forerunners like Shakespeare or Steinbeck, Madden says he’s clearly a cinematic writer.

Springsteen was a movie fan from childhood on and particularly connected with B-movie genres such as road movies, westerns and film noir. I made that connection myself when I first saw the 1958 Robert Mitchum movie, Thunder Road (which I only watched because it was the title of one of my favorite Springsteen songs). Mitchum plays a Korean war veteran who transports the family’s moonshine in his souped-up car with a custom tank built underneath. The scenes I still remember are Mitchum roaring down the dark highway in a drag race with authorities.

Madden describes how the 1971 Monte Hellman movie, Two-Lane Blacktop, influenced Springsteen’s writing of “Racing in the Street,” a 1978 homage to cars and, as the lyrics tell us, “guys who come home from work and wash up and go racin’ in the street.” Both film and song center around men whose “hollow lives focus around racing their hot rods.” And of course “Open All Night” from Nebraska and “The Promised Land” from the Darkness on the Edge of Town album are classic road stories.

Caroline Madden. Photo courtesy of the author.

Western films like John Ford’s The Searchers and How the West Was Won were especially influential. The romantic tramp in “Born to Run” is modeled after John Wayne’s roving Ethan in The Searchers, Madden says. And songs like “Point Blank”  from The River 1980) and “All That Heaven Will Allow” (from Tunnel of Love, 1987) adopt film noirish themes as do “Factory” and “Candy’s Room” from Darkness on the Edge of Town, with its noirish title. Yaky Yosha’s Dead End Street (1982) was the first film to incorporate Springsteen music with the use of “Point Blank.” Springsteen drew that title from John Boorman’s 1967 noir film, Point Blank, about a double-crossed man seeking revenge.

Even Springsteen’s tongue-in-cheek epic western song, “Outlaw Pete,” from Working on a Dream (2009), adopts an Ennio Morricone-like sound as the backdrop for the silly lyrics about a 6-month-old who “robbed a bank in his diapers and his little bare baby feet.” (When Springsteen and illustrator Frank Caruso adopted “Outlaw Pete” as a children’s book, of course I bought it for my grandsons.) Springsteen said the song drew from many sources including every western he had ever seen and the bedtime stories of Brave Cowboy Bill he remembered from his childhood.

Madden asks us to consider what we gain by hearing Bruce Springsteen’s music as soundtrack. “How does his music and personal history intersect with and augment the visual language, mood and spirit of a particular film or television show?” I’ll explore three of Madden’s examples to answer that question.

High Fidelity

First of all, for a Chicagoan as well as a Springsteen fan, the 2000 movie High Fidelity, based on the Nick Hornby book of the same name, is preeminent in the Springsteen film canon. It’s directed by Stephen Frears, whose creative effort and directorial style get very little attention in Madden’s chapter.

Madden spends a long section of the High Fidelity chapter on the misogyny of Rob, John Cusack’s character, who owns a declining record store (the film used a vacant storefront on Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park). Rob is guilty of sexist treatment of women and an “infantile masculinity that sublimates women’s selfhood and autonomy.” Rob uses his infatuation with music to explore his “top five breakups.” The highlight of the film for some of us is the Springsteen cameo: the musician appears with his Telecaster in Rob’s dream to advise the record-store owner about how to talk to his ex-girlfriends. Rob listens to “The River,” Springsteen’s narrative song from the album of the same name, as the scene begins.

Unfortunately, Madden didn’t check her Chicago vocabulary with a local. She refers to a scene where Rob and an ex walk along “Chicago’s crashing coastline” and the sun illuminates “the waterfront’s breaking waves.” Well, it is the third coast, but no one ever uses coastline or waterfront to describe our lakefront.

Madden spends almost four full pages of the High Fidelity chapter on Springsteen’s own growth, both musically and personally, from bar-band misogynist in his early albums to his exploration of adult romantic relationships in the later 1980s and ‘90s, reflecting his own experiences with marriage.

Despite my quibbles, High Fidelity is a great film for music and its Chicago locations, like the Music Box Theatre, the Green Mill Lounge, the Double Door, the Rainbo Club and the Kinzie Street bridge.

Kinzie Street bridge where Rob walks in High Fidelity. Image credit itsfilmedhere.com.

Baby It’s You

John Sayles directed Springsteen music videos like “Glory Days” and “Born on the USA.” He was also one of the first directors to use Springsteen’s music as the soundtrack to this 1983 film about young love and class divides. The film starts in high school, where Jill (Rosanna Arquette) is a theater nerd who gets good grades and a greaser named Sheik (Vincent Spano), a Frank Sinatra wannabe. They’re Jewish and Italian teenagers from opposites sides of Trenton.

Baby It’s You film poster.

The film has the same strong sense of place that High Fidelity has, as Sayles films throughout Springsteen’s “motherland,” from Fort Lee to Hoboken to Jersey City, Newark and Asbury Park on the Jersey Shore.

“It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” introduces Sheik and “The E Street Shuffle” is the accompaniment on the couple’s first date. Both songs are from Springsteen’s two earliest albums. One long lovely scene is set in Asbury Park after Sheik persuades Jill to skip school and they walk on the beautiful boardwalk. At a diner they dance to Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night” on the jukebox. “She’s the One” is Sayles’ segue into the darker half of the film and “Adam Raised a Cain” accompanies Sheik as he realizes he could turn into a version of his reviled father—and that Jill has moved out of his orbit.

The film is a teenaged romance through the first half as Jill and Sheik spend time together and fall in love. The second half, when she goes away to college at Sarah Lawrence and Sheik moves to Miami, highlights the divide between their lives and does not end with the couple in a happily-ever-after scene. The film moves from “the nostalgic visions of teenagehood to the adult complexities of class, work, and love.”

Studio executives at Paramount weren’t pleased with Sayles’ approach; they were expecting a teenaged sex comedy like Porky’s or Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Sayles refused the studio’s demands that he rework or cut the second half of the film.

Philadelphia

This 1993 film, directed by Jonathan Demme, was the first mainstream film to use the AIDS crisis as a theme, nearly a decade after it emerged as a pandemic affecting a huge swath of the population. Philadelphia is the story of Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks), a young lawyer, who fights to keep his job with an elite law firm. After he’s fired because of his illness, he sues his former firm with the help of a homophobic (and later sympathetic) lawyer played by Denzel Washington.

The film is notable for Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia,” which opens the film’s title sequence with its long documentary-like shots of the city, its residential areas, schools and parks, mural-painted and graffiti-ridden buildings and soup kitchen lines. Sometimes people in the filmed scenes break the fourth wall and wave at the camera, as if acknowledging the singer’s presence. The song is a first-person narrative in which Springsteen describes the plight of a man with AIDS.

I was bruised and battered, I couldn’t tell what I felt
I was unrecognizable to myself
I saw my reflection in a window, I didn’t know my own face
Oh brother are you gonna leave me wastin’ away
On the Streets of Philadelphia

Demme has said he wanted Philadelphia (with an everyman star like Hanks) to become a milestone for LGBTQ on-screen representation in mainstream cinema (that is, for a heterosexual audience). His choice of music by Springsteen with his testosterone-laced, machismo image supported that goal.

Demme also appeals to conservative heterosexual moviegoers by almost completely eliminating any romantic or sexual connection between Andrew and his partner/lover Miguel (Anthony Banderas), who lives with Andrew and cares for him in his illness.

“Streets of Philadelphia” won the Academy Award for Best Original Song and Springsteen performed it at the Academy Awards in March 1994. The official music video, directed by Jonathan Demme and his nephew Ted Demme, shows Springsteen walking along the same streets shown in the film’s opening, with other film footage added, including Hanks as Andrew.

Style and format

Springsteen as Soundtrack covers other fascinating films, including Mask, Dead Man Walking, The Wrestler and American Honey. Madden also analyzes two TV series—“The Sopranos” and “Show Me a Hero.” Her 12-page introduction is a compelling overview of Springsteen as storyteller and auteur.

One more example of how Springsteen’s work translates to page and stage involves his album Nebraska, which Madden accurately describes as a “grim tone poem.” Deliver Me From Nowhere is a 2005 book of short stories by Tennessee Jones, based on the Nebraska tracks. In 2012, Chicago’s Tympanic Theatre staged an evening of short plays, Deliver Us From Nowhere: Tales from Nebraska, based on the Jones book.

Madden’s film reviews in IndieWire, Reverse Shot and Screen Queens are journalistically, conversationally written. But for some reason she switches to an academic, polysyllabic style for this book. It would seem that the topic would have more appeal to its likely pop culture audience if it was written in a casual, film-review style. Just as one example, the terms “diegetic” and “non-diegetic” are used dozens/hundreds of times throughout the book. I wish I could do a content analysis. Two veteran film critics said they never used such terms in their reviews; one had never heard them before. (The terms describe the way music or sound is used in a film. Diegetic means the music is part of the story, like music played by onscreen musicians, or a radio or jukebox seen or referenced in the story, whereas non-diegetic is music outside the space of the story, like an underscore or accompaniment. Yes, I looked them up.)

The book’s typography isn’t user-friendly either. The book is published in an odd 7×10 format with densely set pages of small type and few visual breaks, the book would likely be at least 50 percent more than its 242 pages if it was set in a legible format. You may not want to go into the weeds on this with me (I spent a fair amount of time on legibility research during my graduate work in communications), so skip the rest of this paragraph if it bores you. Legibility research on print formats (book, newspaper, magazine) finds that a line length of 1.5 to 2 alphabets (45-60 characters) is the optimum width that the eye can grasp. With longer lines, you get to the end of the line and your eye has trouble finding its way back to the beginning of the next line. Madden’s book is set with wide columns and small type that counts out to 80-90 characters per line. I was pleased to find that type legibility is still a current issue, as in this overview of fonts and legibility  and this study involving line length. (Only typography geeks will use those links, I know.)

Springsteen as Soundtrack is available for $45 from online booksellers or from the publisher.

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