American singer-songwriter and rock legend Bruce Springsteen has written numerous songs for use in films, while his motifs and archetypes have influenced others in a variety of guises. But his relationship to film is symbiotic, his songs possessing a quality that raises them beyond the poetic and into the cinematic.
Springsteen’s work has featured in numerous films, while ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ was written specifically for Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia (1993), ‘Dead Man Walking’ and ‘The Wrestler’ for the films by Tim Robbins and Darren Aaronofsky, respectively, as well as ‘Lift Me Up’ for John Sayles’ Limbo (1999). ‘Secret Garden’ famously featured in Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire (1996). One of his most famous hits, the title track for the 1984 album Born in the USA, derived from the original title of a film Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) was working on, but after Springsteen used it for his song about a Vietnam veteran what he gave Schrader inspired a title change for the film, which became Light of Day (1987), with Joan Jett and Michael J. Fox performing the track together.
Perhaps one of the reasons Springsteen has proved such a popular choice is how the themes and narratives of his songs and the archetypal characters that populate them resonate with these films. ‘Dead Man Walking’, for instance, echoes the murders and death sentences of 1982’s Nebraska, while ‘The Wrestler’ is a fitting companion piece to ‘The Hitter’ on 2005’s Devils and Dust. Over the course of his career Springsteen has developed an image of the blue collar hero; the sometimes brutal realism and social commentary embedded in his songs about the experiences of the working classes reflects the political and economic conditions of his country as much as they consider themes of faith, love, hope, redemption and despair. This led the Empire podcast recently to compare Scott Cooper’s film Out of the Furnace (2013) to a Springsteen song, while the producers of Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) stated in an interview with Total Film that they desired Tom Cruise’s protagonist to be ‘like a character in a Springsteen song’; he works at a dockyard, has a failed marriage and his pride and joy is his car – the iconic metaphor of escape throughout Springsteen’s work.
Springsteen’s identification with the ‘average American’ inspired Jonathan Demme to ask him to write ‘Streets of Philadelphia’. While the lyrics capture the fear, loneliness and isolation of Tom Hanks’ homosexual AIDs victim, the initial homophobia of Denzel Washington’s lawyer and Springsteen’s involvement with the project helped draw a mass audience to a film they may otherwise have shunned.
But he is not adverse to more humorous material too. The turning point of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity sees protagonist Rob question why his life isn’t like a Springsteen song (specifically ‘Bobby Jean’) before deciding to revisit his failed relationships to see what went wrong. In Stephen Frears’ film adaptation, Springsteen cameos, offering this advice to John Cusack’s Rob:
Perhaps the greatest influence Springsteen has had on a single film, though, is in the Sean Penn-directed drama The Indian Runner (1991). Based on Springsteen’s ‘Highway Patrolman’, the film follows Joe Roberts (David Morse), a kind, honest man who must repeatedly save his wayward brother, Frank (Viggo Mortensen), from his destructive streak. With support from Dennis Hopper, Patricia Arquette, Benicio Del Toro and Charles Bronson, Penn’s film is stark, melancholic and brooding, and shows the inherent strength of Springsteen’s narrative song-writing.
But Springsteen also owes much to cinema. As well as having a song by the same name, Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) led Springsteen to research the true story on which it was based, creating the title track of his album Nebraska. The opening lines of the song perfectly mirror Sissy Spacek’s introduction in the film: “I saw her standin’ on her front lawn/just twirlin’ her baton.”
As well as various references to films and stars in his songs – including Marlon Brando and Joan Fontaine – perhaps the most famous reference came from the title of a Robert Mitchum movie: Thunder Road (1958). Springsteen may only have taken the title, but the song best captures the cinematic quality of his writing. Take the opening lines:
“The screen door slams/Mary’s dress waves/Like a vision she dances across the porch/as the radio plays/Roy Orbison singing for the lonely/Hey that’s me and I want you only/Don’t turn me home again/I just can’t face myself alone again.”
In these few lines we have our opening shot, a close up, a direction and introduction of character as we move to a wide shot of the porch, the diegetic sound of the radio, the introduction of the protagonist and his motivating desire, the central conflict, and an element of his back-story.
‘Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)’, ‘Incident on 57th Street’, ‘Jungleland’, ‘Stolen Car’, ‘The River’ ‘Cautious Man’, ‘Racing in the Street’… throughout Springsteen’s career his songs have possessed an exceptional cinematic quality born from his combination of character, narrative, structure, theme and music.
Will we ever see these elements combine to form a film about Springsteen himself? Thom Zimny has given us two superb documentaries in Wings for Wheels: The Making of Born to Run (2005) and The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town (2010), while Baillie Walsh gave us the misjudged and at times cringe-worthy Youtube documentary Springsteen & I (2013). But a Hollywood biopic of Springsteen’s own story? If it was to happen, I would place my faith in Joseph Gordon-Levitt to be the Boss: he has the solemn calm and intensity needed, as well as the charisma and riotous physicality. He is also a performer, an entertainer, and he isn’t a bad likeness either…
What are your top cinematic Springsteen songs? Who would you cast in a (TV?) movie of Springsteen’s life? Let us know below…