I saw Springsteen and I on opening night in southern Jersey in a packed theater of excited Springsteen fans. I hadn’t planned on going. But, my wife bought 6 tickets as a Father’s Day present and so we went with my oldest friend in the world (since we were 1 year olds), a colleague at Rowan, and my former Springsteen Twitter study research assist and her boyfriend. In honor of @burgersandbruce‘s burgerlicous blog post about meeting Bruce and talkin’ burgers, I had a burger for dinner just before.
I had mixed emotions when going into the theater. When I first heard of the Springsteen and I project, I was skeptical. Like many, my initial thought was: what are the motivations for this? I was sympathetic to tweets I read and discussions I had with friends that expressed concern about fans being exploited—and, here, doubly by the fact that neither the producer, Ridley Scott, nor director, Baillie Walsh were Springsteen fans. I only read one review of the movie, Caryn Rose’s, where she expresses her concerns about how some fans are treated as a result of how the director chose to juxtapose their statements with actual Springsteen footage. All fan communities have concerns about how they will be treated by those who aren’t fans. Too often—especially when observed by those who are not also fans—there are very real feelings of voyeurism and side-show-ism emerge. As my friend and colleague, Kyle Stedman, tweeted during a presentation I recently gave about Springsteen fans on twitter:
Henry Jenkins writes about these concerns in his seminal text, Textual Poachers: Television, Fans, and Participatory Culture. Specifically discussing a 1986 Newsweek article by Charles Leerhsen, “Star Treks‘s Nine Lives,” Jenkins recounts how in the artucle “[f]ans are characterized as ‘kooks’ obsessed with trivia, celebrities, and collectibles; as misfits and ‘crazies’; . . . as people who have little or no ‘life’ apart from their fascination with this particular program” (p. 11). In Tramps Like Us: Music and Meaning Among Springsteen Fans, Daniel Cavicchi discusses the etymology of the word “fan,”—“a confusing word” he called is (p. 38)—which (possibly) dates back to the seventeenth century as an abbreviation of the word “fanatic,” “which connoted religious zealotry and was widely used at the time to refer to those who were mad, frenzied, or possessed” (p. 38). He observes that people “tend to view fandom from two different poles.” The first is rather benign, when people say that are a fan of a particular kind of food. Others, however, “use the word ‘fan’ to negatively label someone who eagerly participates in the mass media [of a particular subject], often prefacing it with adjectives such as ‘crazy’ or ‘deranged'” (p. 39). Springsteen fans of course know this and this is why they (we) (many) were understandably hesitant of being placed in the hands of non-fans and then put on the big screen. (I’m glad the movie only had two viewing dates and not a full national release.)
On the other hand, I was intrigued to see what resulted from the experiment of fans submitting video from which a feature-length documentary would be created. Inspired by the too-naive and feel-good crowd sourced movie, Life in a Day, Springsteen and I was an experiment in making a mashup and since I teach mashups I was interested to see what would happen. And now that I am moving into fandom as my area of scholarship I was curious to see how a movie about fans would be received by fans. Still, I didn’t submit a video, nor did doing so ever enter my mind. But, 2,000 Springsteen fans did and I was curious to see the results.
Since the premier and subsequent showing, many have tweeted how much they enjoyed not just the movie but the experience of seeing the movie. I, too, must say that I was pleasantly surprised by the event. And it was an event. The movie was shown between Springsteen’s infamous 2012 Hard Rock Calling show (where the power was switched off while Bruce was singing with Sir Paul McCartney) and an epilogue where we got to see some of the fans featured as they recounted meeting Bruce as result of being in the film. Whomever made the decision to present the movie that way should be commended because regardless of what they thought about the movie—and this is key—fans got to see concert footage of an awesome show and watch Bruce interacting with his fans. So, we all left on a high. We all sang the songs and clapped when they were done and some shouted “Bruuuuuce!” The theater I was at was just about sold out and it was good fun to be surrounded, once again, by Springsteen fans singing songs we all know and love. So, it was a great event, no question.
The movie had it’s highs and lows. I particularly enjoyed seeing rare concert footage (especially the performance of “Manson on the Hill”) and hearing a diverse group of people articulate thoughts and feelings that I, too, have had about Bruce and his music over the years. I was struck by the realization that recording the videos and submitting them was an act of bravery because, as many of the clips showed, articulating thoughts about Bruce is very much articulating what they themselves are as individuals—and it takes guts to expose who you are to an unknown audience (and faith in whose hands you place those statements). I also loved the story from the factory worker from England who had “saved for 25 years” so he and his wife could take a vacation to New York City to see Bruce at Madison Square Garden only to get seats that were in the last row in the rafters only to be given front row seats by a mysterious man walking in the upper walkways of the Garden. Miraculous. So, too, was it amazing to hear stories of people being transfixed by Bruce as he performed, to have their first moments when they realized who they were and what they cared about in this world. Many (most) of the people were not the fans who have seen Bruce 100s of times—indeed, one couple, had never seen him (and have since been offered a trip to see him in Rio in September, which they turned down—but they all expressed a devotion that exists in people beyond the pit and into the seats in the way back. They presented a kind of fandom that Bruce himself defined in a 1982 Belgian interview with Marc Didden, published in issue 5 of the Point Blank fanzine:
I’m a very big fan myself. I have the mentality of a fan. I can’t hear a bad word about Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, John Fogerty, Jackson Browne, Southside Johnny, because I am a relentless fan of all those people. I would take great pains to meet all of them, in so far [as] they are still alive, of course. In fact I did go very far once. [Bruce recounts jumping the fence at Graceland to try to meet Elvis only to be apprehended by a security guard and to find the Elvis wasn’t home.]
“Fan” means to me what I said about Elvis: to love someone unconditionally because what that person is doing makes part of your own dreams come true. That I loved Elvis so much has something to do with more than just his music. I fell for his personality, for everything Elvis stood for. But that admiration of course would never have existed without that of his music which was as strong as iron. (p. 11)
Still, despite these moments (and perhaps because, though I’m not sure) there are moments when I have to question the director’s decisions—and those moments are where the director allows the participants to call attention to themselves at the risk of becoming a caricature of a fan. This is most obvious in the clip with Dominic Martin and his mother, Theresa, who is really trying just so hard. It is clear that Theresa scripted the video (a script Dominic wonderfully and sarcastically departs from) and that she is both proud of her fandom but also self conscious of what she is doing. She is nervous, which is great, but her unconscious mannerisms unfortunately call attention to herself in a way that results in laughter from the audience—laughter that is at her not with her, as it was with so many others in the film. (She is also objectified by the moderator of the Rolling Stone Q&A by asking her to recount her memorabilia quantities for a laughing audience.) “Crazy” and “fan” are so closely related in contemporary culture that in both of the Q&As in which Baillie Walsh participated (on Reddit and Rolling Stone) two early questions were about the “craziest” video he received. It would have been quite easy to take her audio and place it over some muted Springsteen footage that connected in some way with what she said. Walsh does this to great effect at the end of the movie when Rachel (I think) reads a letter to Bruce that she never send and we hear it over muted montage of concert footage spanning Springsteen’s career.
Another questionable moment is the placement of Thomas Sawyer too early in the movie. When he very movingly starts crying as he describes his relationship with Springsteen’s music, many in the theater, including one of the people with me, started and quickly stopped laughing. When we discussed that moment after the film was over she suggested that perhaps it was too early in the movie for that emotion because the audience hadn’t had an enough of an introduction to the idea that the there would be emotional responses. I think she is spot-on—especially for people who in the audience who were not so emotionally invested in Springsteen. I didn’t find Sawyer’s crying to be odd at all. But, I tend to cry easily, especially on this tour, which, because of the Wrecking Ball songs, has been an emotional roller-coaster. I also agree with Caryn Rose’s statement about the unfair placement of Springsteen discussing the nuances and joys of cunnilingus as a preface to “Red Headed Woman” during the Ghost of Tom Joad tour directly following a female fan’s stream of consciousness video in which she finds herself (quite unwittingly, I suspect) discussing Patty Scialfa and associatively starts discussing “Red Headed Woman.” The fan’s video was wonderful without that moment and certainly we didn’t need to feel that overt directorial intervention by placing the two together. I’m not sure what his point is in putting these together other than to exploit something in the fan’s story. It’s as if he is making fun of her so as to bring laughs. (Incidentally, Walsh seems rather taken with the cunnilingus clip, as he references it jokingly in his Reddit Q&A in response to the question, “Whats the most interesting factoid you learned about “The Boss” during your time creating this docu?” The rest of his answer was just as bland and milquetoast as just about everything else he has said about the movie, “But in all seriousness, The Boss is incredibly generous in a very discreet way. Not only are his fans devoted to him — he is devoted to his fans.” No kidding.) It also makes one wonder about his response to the question, “Do you think you are not a huge fan gave you an advantage?” in the Rolling Stone Q&A: “I think so. I didn’t come with a playlist. I didn’t come with any preconceived ideas. The fans were informing me. They made this film, which was really important to me.” Yes, they made their entries and uploaded them, but he recomposed them to create a particular narrative and I’d be curious as to why he made some of the decisions he made.
In many ways, I don’t think Walsh is very good at composing a feature-length mashup, especially one that is supposed to be objective as he hopes his is. A mashup is a collection of found texts that one placed together. Most are not linear—in fact, most mashups actively exploit the idea of linearity in favor of non-linearity, juxtaposition, and montage. Full clips are broken into smaller pieces and shown intermittently over the course of a movie. Audiences don’t need to see a clip in full in order to follow the thread of the narrative it is telling. We have been trained very well by movies that jump from scene to scene. When Walsh does bring participants in over the course of the movie the results are excellent. The presentation of Jon Braager, the man who works at the stadium where he first saw Bruce when he was nine, and Kitty Liang, the young truck driver, are excellent, because we get pieces of their story within the larger context of the movie. Then we get Braager in the epilogue meeting Bruce. And in the end it is Springsteen who helps mitigate (temporarily while you are in the theater) feelings of exploitation. His validation of fans and their feelings by either pulling them out of crowds or meeting either meeting with them back stage shows that he takes great pleasure in his fans and gets a kick out of what they say.
Another issue for me is just what the producers are going to do with all the fan statements. The fans trusted them when they uploaded the material to be respectful with the footage—that is, with their inner thoughts about Springsteen. Is that stuff just going to be placed in a DVD or will it be treated with respect? And what is happening with the money profited off of these fans? Surely, some should be directed to a charity and/or something that will benefit the fans themselves.
So, in the end, I recommend seeing it if it comes into theaters again, and to see it on DVD. It is important to hear the words of all fans of Springsteen, especially those whose seats might be at the edges of the stadium, who might not share them too often online or in print, and who might not find their way into other fan-related projects. It is also important as a document for showing the importance of fandom in people’s lives. But, watch it with your eyes wide open and to question the motivations for why you are seeing it in the first place.