' ' Cinema Romantico: What Kind of Big Screen Bruce Do We Want?

Wednesday, May 08, 2024

What Kind of Big Screen Bruce Do We Want?

In the year 2000, Bruce Springsteen appeared briefly in the Stephen Frears-directed adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel “High Fidelity” not so much as himself as a vision of the main character (John Cusack). And as much as I enjoyed “Blinded by the Light” (2019), and the 2013 fan service documentary “Springsteen & I” too, Planet Earth Poet Laureate’s cameo in “High Fidelity” essentially summarized in less than 60 seconds what both those movies took their entire run times to say, that for Springsteen fans, he exists as a spiritual sherpa. And though I’m biased as a longtime resident of E Street, it has always seemed to me that’s all we ever really needed of Bruce on the big screen. He, himself, saw the speciousness of the whole potential exercise back in 1983 when he recorded the cheeky rockabilly “Born in the U.S.A.” outtake “TV Movie.” What, did we really want him to get “Rocketman-ed,” or “Bohemian Rhapsody-ed,” or “Walk the Line-d?” “You might get to thinking you’re ahead of the game / but when you break it all down / it all comes out the same,” sang James McMurtry in “Painting by Numbers,” essentially describing the majority of musician biopics, mere vessels for their actors to get Academy Award nominations, sticking to a formula so rote that “Walk Hard: the Dewey Cox Story” took it apart element by element.

In 2017, there was some vague news about a movie called “Asbury Park,” set in the Jersey beach town and around its preeminent rock club, the Stone Pony, where Springsteen got his start that, back then at least, seemed to suggest Springsteen would play a supporting role. That was intriguing, not only not making a Springsteen biopic but in a movie about Springsteen’s old stomping ground, keeping him to the side, maybe like a Wolfman Jack in “American Graffiti,” looming large without being the star of the show. As stated, though, that was 2017, and in visiting that prospective film’s entry on IMDb, one discovers that it remains “In Development,” left, perhaps, to hike the streets up in the sky*. (*Obscure Springsteen reference.) If, however, “Asbury Park” is not the answer to our unconventional Springsteen biopic dreams, then perhaps “Deliver Me from Nowhere” is.

I only just learned that Scott Cooper, who wrote and directed Jeff Bridges in “Crazy Heart,” is slated to helm a Bruce Springsteen movie with “The Bear’s” Jeremy Allen White reportedly in talks to star as The Boss himself. Forget whether White may or may not make a credible Bruce (can he do a hoarse laugh?). That’s of less interest to me than the idea supporting the movie and the idea, thankfully, does not appear to be a biopic, or at least, not a traditional biopic, based as it is on Warren Zanes’s book of the same title about Springsteen recording his sixth studio album “Nebraska,” the one he recorded entirely on a 4-track recorder in his New Jersey bedroom, and that also, more or less, is when he conceived of the ensuing “Born in the U.S.A.” too. This is an idea that gives the potential movie crucial focus and real potential. (It is also possible, I concede, that this movie begins with Bruce sitting down at the 4-track recorder in his New Jersey bedroom, triggering the first flashback of many, a la aforementioned Dewey Cox, who “has to think about his entire life before he plays.”)

The involvement of Springsteen himself and his longtime manager Jon Landau might be cause for concern, at least in terms of Cooper having the room to honest and unmerciful, but maybe their involvement is just to ensure Cooper has full access to the singer’s catalogue, so “Atlantic City” doesn’t have to be translated into “Ocean City” like “Piece of My Heart” into “Chunk of My Lung.” But overall, I find myself encouraged. It has the potential to function as a companion piece to “Air” (2023), which claimed in words to know what “Born in the U.S.A.” was about even as the movie itself suggested otherwise, just as “Nebraska” and “Born in the U.S.A.” “were two sides of the same coin,” to quote the rock critic Elizabeth Nelson. “The umbrage-filled bluster of one and the quiet violence of the other taken together are a prophetic nightmare vision of a contemporary America, which can’t tell the difference between an execution and a compliment.” 

Nelson saw further than that, even, to “a relationship between Springsteen and his audience (that) is as moving and unhealthy as rock has ever had on offer,” noting that “‘Nebraska’ was a low confidence vote in a country that simultaneously made him rich and made him doubt everything.” It’s mere wishcasting, especially in a genre where affirmations tend to be what general audiences want more than provocations or questions, but I like imagining a Bruce biopic that rather than reconsecrating the fan relationship one more time might have the guts to hold it up to the light.

No comments: