Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 21, 2013)
After 40 years as a recording artist, Bruce Springsteen has established one of the most dedicated fan bases in all of rock. Those fans become the focus of 2013’s Springsteen and I, a look at what Bruce means to those who follow his work.
Though it also includes concert footage of Springsteen from over the years, the project usually consists of fan-created video submissions. In these, folks discuss what they think of Bruce and aspects of their lives and histories as fans.
Obviously that means Springsteen doesn’t follow any form of narrative arc. Though the editing doesn’t present the comments in a random order, there’s no abundantly obvious pattern on display. Some fans give us emotional testimonials while others go for more comedic – or kooky – bents.
As the veteran of many, many Springsteen shows, I am a Bruce fan, and I’ve spent ample time around others with a deep interest in his music. While it pains me to say this, I must: diehard Bruce fans tend to be pretty annoying. Many indulge in endless one-upmanship and bring an odd level of competition to the subject. If you saw Bruce in 1978, someone will say they saw him in 1977. If you’ve been to 200 Bruce shows, the next guy will claim he went to 201.
Sometimes I honestly start to wonder if some of these folks really care about the music or if they’re just in it for the “sport” of it all. When I saw Bruce at a small show in Pittsburgh in 2011, the people behind me engaged in pretty relentless genital-comparing – and continued well into the start of the concert!
Perhaps this sense of competition comes with other acts who attract diehard audiences, but I’m not sure. I’ve been to many Pearl Jam fans and have hung out with their “major fans” but never experienced the same attitude I get from Bruce buffs. PJ fans seem to be there for the music and they appear to be happy to embrace anyone else who wants to come along for the ride, whereas Bruce folks often judge others based on their “Springsteen credentials”. None of this keeps me from enjoying the concerts, of course, but I must admit I just don’t often like to hobnob with other Bruce fans.
Going into Springsteen and I, I hoped that I might get a broader perspective on those other Bruce fans and come to appreciate them from a different point of view. Alas, that didn’t happen; while it usually shows that Bruce attracts listeners without quite the same “trainspotting-style” obsession that I seem to encounter, it doesn’t show Springsteen fans in the most fascinating light.
Honestly, as I watched the documentary, I wondered if it included each and every video submission the producers received, as I couldn’t imagine it represented the cream of the crop. It does try to avoid the genital-comparers, though a few do appear, such as the slightly frightening woman who makes sure we know that if you didn’t see Bruce before she did, you missed out on his “ferocity”. Where’s that “roll-eyes” emoticon when you need it?
A few other semi-creepy folks pop up as well, like the guy who starts to cry when he just thinks about the lyrics to Bruce songs – he doesn’t even need to hear them! I guess we’re supposed to be moved by his emotional attachment to Bruce’s lyrics, but instead, he just seems weird.
As does the woman who trots out her Bruce collection for the camera and forces her family to follow a lame script to prove her fandom. She’s got a scary wild-eyed thing going – if I ever see how at a show, I’m gonna run the other way! (And can anyone explain why she includes The Last Waltz among her Bruce items? He had nothing to do with that show/movie/CD.)
To balance out these oddballs, we do get a few genuinely interesting tales. I like the guy who got on-stage in Philly while dressed as Elvis – and sang a couple of tunes with Bruce. A couple of the others seem like nice enough people who have decent stories to tell.
But most are eminently forgettable, which leads me to the “this is the best they had?” feeling. And the answer is “apparently not”, as the Blu-ray includes some “bonus films” that I like more than anything in the final product.
So why do we end up with so many banal tales? I don’t know. Of course, I have no idea if the interesting “bonus films” found here offer all the good material in the vault or if they held onto other worthwhile footage, but I do believe that much of the program passes with lackluster commentary. The fans relate experiences and feelings that rise above the level of “Bruce rules!” but not by much; that largely sums up the program.
Though not a creation of Springsteen’s camp, the documentary usually feels like his folks spearheaded it, as you’ll get an awful lot of praise for Bruce here. Granted, that’s inevitable to a certain degree – after all, the show’s about fans and their feelings toward Springsteen – but I would’ve liked something a little less smooochy-smoochy.
At least Springsteen and I throws in some good archival footage of Bruce on stage. As I’ll mention soon, the quality of the material varies wildly and is often pretty weak, but I’m still happy to see it. We get gems like an acoustic “Growin’ Up” from the mid-70s as well as a few other performances from across the years. We don’t get full songs, unfortunately, which makes them less useful, but I still enjoy them.
Actually, we find one complete song at the end, when we hear “Born to Run” in its entirety – with a twist. The movie edits together a montage of renditions that starts in 1975 and finishes in 2012. It’s a fun way to catalog Bruce’s performances of his most iconic song over the decades.
(By the way, you might note that the segment leaps from 1985 to 2000. What happened to the tours in between? The 1988 tour offered an acoustic version that wouldn’t have meshed with the band renditions, and he omitted the song during his 1995-96 solo trek. 1992-93 boasted a full-band performance – but it came from Bruce’s non-E Street “replacement band”, which the Springsteen camp kinda sorta pretends didn’t exist, so they don’t make the light of day here.)
The live footage was enough to get me through Springsteen and I, but the rest became tough sledding. I’m sure one can find fans with interesting tales to tell of their Bruce-related experiences, but few of them appear in this tedious documentary.