Thom Zimny on filming Bruce Springsteen, and why John Lennon got The Boss all wrong

James Hall
·9-min read
At the peak of his powers: Bruce Springsteen - Apple TV+
At the peak of his powers: Bruce Springsteen - Apple TV+

On an overcast Sunday afternoon in late October last year, filmmaker Thom Zimny was sitting by a fire with Bruce Springsteen outside the singer’s New Jersey farm. The pair were listening to The Beatles and shooting the breeze. Zimny had directed or collaborated on dozens of film projects with The Boss over the previous two decades, and their latest project – a documentary about Springsteen’s new album, Western Stars – had just been released.

“It was a dark grey day. And Bruce said, ‘I’m bringing the guys back to the studio for a week. Why don’t you come by and film?’ From there the adventure began,” Zimny recalls.

By “the guys”, Springsteen meant the E Street Band, who have been the 71 year-old’s primary backing band since 1972. E Street are one of those bands whose sonics are instantly recognisable: they specialise in a raw and uplifting wall of sound featuring multiple guitars, saxophone, glockenspiel and piano. The band’s members are household names in themselves, from guitarists Nils Lofgren and ‘Little Steven’ Van Zandt, who played Silvio Dante in The Sopranos, to drummer Max Weinberg and (now departed) saxophonist Clarence Clemons.

Theirs is a musical formula that turned albums such as Born to Run, The River and Born in the USA into multimillion-selling classics. Now, some six years after their last full album, Springsteen was planning to make a record with his old buddies over the course of just five days. And he wanted Zimny to capture it.

Springsteen wasn’t messing around. In early November, just days after their fireside chat, the band arrived and Zimny’s cameras started rolling. The result is Letter To You, an album and black and white ‘making of’ film, the latter of which is released on Apple TV+ on Friday.

Zimny had a blank canvas. “There was not a lot of discussion about it. There was no pre-planning and there was no packaging of an idea going in. I was trying to capture the lyrics, the tone and the events unfolding. Nothing was acted out for the cameras and nothing was redone,” he says.

Letter To You is, in part, a snapshot of what happens when you put musicians with half a century of shared history in a room with a ticking clock. Van Zandt calls it their “Beatles’ schedule”, referring to the Fab Four’s lightning quick recording sessions in their early years. For anyone interested in the creative process – irrespective of whether they’re a Springsteen fan or not – Letter To You is an eye-opening insight into making art.

From the early morning huddle around Springsteen to learn song structures (“Gentlemen! Get your notepads and congregate!”) to the early rehearsals, and from the often goosebump-inducing actual recording just hours later to the band’s Tequila toast at the end of each day, Letter To You is a masterclass in camaraderie and musicianship.

But there’s discipline too. E Street exist somewhere between a dictatorship and a democracy, and it’s fascinating to watch. Zimny says that while each member has their own place, Springsteen is band leader. They’re the board and he’s the chairman, as his barked notepad instructions suggest. But you don’t become a rock juggernaut without structure and a honed work ethic.

Springsteen and The E Street Band
Springsteen and The E Street Band

If you remove 40 year-old sax player Jake (son of Clarence) Clemons from the calculation, then the average age of E Street members is around 70. But Zimny believes he’s captured a band “at the peak of their powers”. Springsteen’s manager Jon Landau told the current edition of Uncut magazine that Letter To You is “as good as we ever were in the studio”. At one point in the film, Landau wipes away a tear as he listens to a playback.

On screen, Springsteen tries to sum up the E Street alchemy. “Ideas tumble around the room, people talk over one another, there are false starts and stops, confusion often reigns and then suddenly… dynamite,” he says.

Watching the film, it’s hard to argue with Zimny, Landau or Springsteen. This is particularly the case in a sequence showing the band recording the song Ghosts. If you were to close your eyes and conjure the most Bruce Springsteen-esque two and a half minutes of music imaginable, the second half of Ghosts could be it. The song, which is a propulsive rocker, breaks down and we hear just Bruce singing over Roy Bittan’s twinkling piano. Harmonies, drums and guitar re-enter the fray before hammond organ, sax, handclaps and a group backing vocal kick in for an almighty crescendo.

Bruce Springsteen with Thom Zimney (second on the right) - Alamy 
Bruce Springsteen with Thom Zimney (second on the right) - Alamy

Zimny is especially proud of this sequence. “Ghosts does the thing that I always wanted to try to do, which was to break down the DNA and the spirit of an E Street track in the moment.” There’s a memorable snippet where Springsteen, listening to a playback of the song, spontaneously adds the handclaps only for Van Zandt, standing next to him, to double them up in the vein of I Want To Hold Your Hand. They both nod and smile. It is musical intuition in action.

The director cut his teeth editing The Wire, HBO’s crime drama. Letter To You shares that show’s knack of seeming to hang back while capturing intimate moments such as this. Zimny calls The Wire “an amazing education” and says he “carries the spirit” of the series with him every day. There’s a Springsteen link to the Baltimore show too: Clarence Clemons appeared in two episodes of its third series in 2004.

(Talking of intimate moments, when we speak Zimny hasn’t heard about the off-screen drama engulfing Wire star Dominic West, who had been pictured in what appeared to be romantic clinches with actress Lily James. I tell him and he Googles it. “I’m looking here at Dominic now as we speak. Oh gosh [surprised laugh]. Er, well, God bless him.”).

But Letter To You is more than just a fly-on-the-wall account of a band making music. It is the latest in a late-career run of deeply personal projects by Springsteen. He made his name singing about blue collar American life, cars, girls and escapism. His more reflective recent songs deal with loss, mortality and the forks in life’s road. The Letter To You song I’ll See You In My Dreams, for example, is an ode to dead friends, while the aforementioned Ghosts is a tribute to E Street bandmates past and present.

The film’s scenes are stitched together with a Springsteen voiceover expounding on these themes. The Boss’s lid-lifting personal odyssey began with his candid autobiography in 2016 (in which he wrote about struggles with depression). It continued the following year with his 14-month, 236-show, Tony-winning acoustic stint in Springsteen on Broadway.

Then it ran into 2019 with the hit-the-road, cinematic and starkly candid Western Stars (which reached number 2 in the US and number 1 in the UK), and it carries on here. Zimny says Letter To You completes an emotional trilogy that started with the book/ Broadway show and Western Stars.

Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa  - Apple TV+
Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa - Apple TV+

Having worked with Springsteen for so long, Zimny is clearly a fan. But I ask him if he can objectively name another musician who has so openly lifted the metaphorical curtain on his or her life late in their career. To me, only Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan come close.

“As a fan of Bruce’s music but also as a fan of pop music and all kinds of genres, I have no other reference outside of Bob Dylan where I can see later chapters as exciting and unpredictable as Bruce’s,” Zimny says.

All of which begs the question of ‘why?’ Why is Springsteen doing all this soul bearing? With an estimated net worth of almost $500 million, he doesn’t need the money. Nor does he need the fame or (presumably) the hassle. He’s happily married to E Street member Patti Scialfa in his beautiful, vast home. Zimny chuckles at the question. “I think my favourite part of the film is the opening voiceover where Bruce says ‘I don’t know why I need to do this, but I do…’”

Always the Boss
Always the Boss

In this introduction, Springsteen frames Letter To You as the latest stage in a long dialogue with fans. He describes a “burning need” to communicate, before listing the possible reasons why. This need, he says, could be driven by loneliness, hunger, ego, ambition, desire, or a need to be felt, heard and recognised. “All of the above,” he concludes.

When I met Springsteen earlier this year at a Western Stars screening, I asked him whether each new project is a reaction against the last. For example, I wondered, was the colourful road trip-themed Western Stars his response to having been cooped up a small black-walled Broadway theatre every night for 14 months?

No, he said. He didn’t seem to see this as a linear set of releases at all. Every thing he does, every new album and film he puts out, is simply part of a multifaceted and ongoing conversation with fans, he told me. Zimny says that The Boss currently has more ideas and projects on the go than he “can comprehend” (although a proposed E Street tour is on ice due to Covid-19). It’s worth repeating: Springsteen is 71.

Still got it: Bruce Springsteen
Still got it: Bruce Springsteen

With all the Beatles links to this project, I end by reading Zimny something that John Lennon said about Springsteen in 1980 shortly before he was murdered. I hate to puncture the Beatles love-in but I’m keen to hear his reaction. It is a typically catty Lennon comment. At the time, Springsteen’s Hungry Heart was a radio hit. “God help Bruce Springsteen when he’s no longer God,” said Lennon. “Right now, his fans are happy. He’s told them about being drunk and chasing girls and cars and everything, and that’s about the level they enjoy. But when he gets down to facing his own success and growing older and having to produce it again and again, they’ll turn on him and I hope he survives.”

Zimny knows the quote. He says that Lennon is talking about the “dangers of losing oneself” over a long career in music. “I can’t speak for Bruce but the beauty I find in all this work is that he’s been able to remain focused on telling the stories he wants,” he says.

He is right. Lennon was wrong. Springsteen has grown older, changed his focus and his fans are still happy. Forty years on, they haven’t turned on him. He has survived. More than survived, judging by his recent successes. To millions of fans around the world, he remains God.

Letter To You is on Apple TV+ now