The two spoke of their 'Philadelphia' connection during their Tribeca Talk before diving into the influence of movies on Springsteen's work and discussing his music catalog, from 'Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.' to 'Born to Run' and more.

By Eric Renner Brown
April 28, 2017 at 10:13 PM EDT
Credit: Kevin Mazur/Gettty Images

There was only one logical starting point for Bruce Springsteen and Tom Hanks to begin their Tribeca Talk at New York’s Beacon Theater on Friday evening: Director Jonathan Demme, who died Wednesday at the age of 73 after a battle with esophageal cancer.

“The strongest union of our two names is from the motion picture Philadelphia,” Hanks told Springsteen as the packed house took their seats. “God bless Jonathan Demme. We just lost him.”

“He was such an inspirational guy,” Springsteen said. “No Jonathan Demme, no Philadelphia. No Philadelphia, no ‘Streets of Philadelphia.'” Demme’s 1993 drama marked a crowning moment in both Springsteen and Hanks’ careers; the former won the Best Original Song Oscar for “Streets of Philadelphia,” while the latter received the Best Actor honor for his portrayal of AIDS patient Andrew Beckett.

Springsteen said Demme asked him to write a song after deciding to use the tune he had commissioned from Neil Young, “Philadelphia,” to close the film — and the Boss added that he penned the cut in two days. “If you ever want to have a great moment in a motion picture,” Hanks concluded, “walk out a door and make sure they just put up a Bruce Springsteen song.”

The pairing of the two beloved stars, who spoke for more than an hour, made sense. Through their respective mediums, Springsteen, 67, and Hanks, 60, have spent decades rendering the stories of Americans of all stripes in vivid detail. “You tell a story to save your life,” Springsteen said at one point. “That’s really what your motivation is.” In a sense, the statement applied to both his and Hanks’ bodies of work.

But, despite the solemnness of the subject matter Springsteen and Hanks often convey, their conversation Friday mostly brimmed with levity. Clearly a Bruce diehard, Hanks framed the talk chronologically around the Boss’ career, and he never missed a chance to initiate corresponding lyrical call and responses with the audience. “Rosalita,” “Thunder Road,” “The Ties That Bind,” and more — the crowd generally responded with gusto, though they balked when Hanks hummed the melody from “Growin’ Up,” off Springsteen’s 1973 debut Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. As the Boss surveyed the theater skeptically, Hanks interjected: “You didn’t waste a lot of ink writing that lyric.”

The rapport Hanks quickly established with Springsteen differentiated the Tribeca Talk from the extensive book tour the musician embarked on last fall in support of his definitive memoir Born to Run. (Hanks remarked that he assumed the audience had read the book in Springsteen’s deliberate cadence just like he had and received strong applause.) The specifics of Springsteen’s lore are well-worn — how his first band, The Castilles, took its name from its guitarist’s shampoo; how he grew up in a religious family within stone’s throw from the local church — but Hanks proved a different foil than an esteemed journalist such as The New Yorker‘s David Remnick.

Given the venue and Hanks’ expertise, Springsteen explained the impact of film on his work, citing his fourth album, 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, as his first full-length that was deeply inspired by the cinema. According to Springsteen, his manager Jon Landau — once a culture critic — turned him on to the power of the silver screen in the mid ’70s. The Boss said he was moved “very, very deeply” by the “humanism” of John Ford’s 1940 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. From there, Springsteen became obsessed with film noir classics including 1944’s Double Indemnity.

Naturally, Hanks also asked Springsteen about the business savvy that helped him become one of rock’s most successful figures. Hanks mentioned the common characterization of Springsteen as “the dictator” of the E Street Band, and Springsteen spun a vivid story of marijuana plants in the front seats of tour vans and nights spent in jail before concluding that “a gentle, controlling hand is not such a bad thing.” And Springsteen articulated the don’t-look-back aesthetic that’s necessary for success in the entertainment industry. “Your chance comes along and you dive in,” he said, “no matter what s— you’re diving into.”

Hanks — who at the conversation’s end said he had “notes on 11 more albums” — also ably delved into the lyrical significance of Springsteen’s catalog, though the Boss largely remained down to earth. When Hanks analyzed that Born to Run was the moment where Springsteen’s songwriting shifted “from the specificness of Jersey to the heart and soul of America,” the rocker laughed off the grandiose phrasing: “Well, we weren’t selling any records the other way!” And later, when Hanks described interpretations of songs such as “Born in the U.S.A.” as “a type of Rorschach test,” Springsteen refused to provide substantive political analysis. “That’s pop music in general,” he said. “That’s how [Woody Guthrie’s] ‘This Land Is Your Land’ ends up being sung around the campfire at a Boy Scout camp.”

The sentiment captured the event’s broader theme. When Springsteen sat before a Manhattan audience in October with Remnick for a wide-ranging conversation, the upcoming presidential election dominated; earlier that day, the Washington Post had first broken the infamous Access Hollywood story. On Friday evening, Hanks introduced a low-stakes atmosphere that Springsteen thrived in. “I like to happen to the world,” Springsteen commented. “All artists like to happen to the world. We don’t like the world happening to us, because we’ve had enough of that already.”