“Letter To You” is a documentary about the making of Bruce Springsteen’s latest album, his first with the E Street Band since 2014.
Much of the project was inspired by the recent death of George Theiss, a bandmate of Springsteen’s in The Castiles in the 1960s. Theiss’ death leaves Bruce, at 71, the only surviving member of that group, which explains why the overriding themes of the album are regret, aging, and dying.
The documentary completes a nostalgia trifecta for Springsteen, looking back on his life as he did in his “Born To Run” autobiography and 2018 Broadway show. It includes footage from his childhood and early career, with Springsteen’s narration added. He even went back into his songwriting notebooks from 50 years ago — when his lyrics were much denser — and resurrected tunes that he’d never recorded or released.
What makes “Letter To You” work is being able to watch the studio process. We get to see his fellow musicians taking notes as he plays each song for them for the first time on acoustic guitar, working out their parts, and making suggestions. But it’s always clear that Springsteen is the boss (with a small “b”), as is evident at one point when there’s a minor argument about when to stop in the middle of a song. Finally, Springsteen announces, “You stop when I tell you to stop. If I don’t tell you to stop, keep playing.”
It’s clear throughout that Springsteen still gets joy from playing with the E Street Band, and the documentary serves as a bit of a tribute to them. Having them play together in the studio on his New Jersey property, using very few overdubs, adds to the energy of the songs. At a time when we’re all socially distanced or staying at home, it’s also nice to see the band members sharing the same space in these sessions, which were completed in four days in November, 2019.
Director Thom Zimny, who has shot and edited many Springsteen projects in the last 15 years, provides us access to the work without getting in the way, and uses black and white to evoke the reflective mood of the music. My only complaint is that I would have liked to see more of the music-making process, and less of the scenes in which Springsteen narrates moments from his past.
I give “Letter To You” an 8 out of 10. It is streaming on Apple TV+.