The Boss's Letter to You is a rocking exercise in nostalgia,  gratitude, and hope.

By Sarah Rodman
October 17, 2020 at 10:00 AM EDT
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Credit: Apple TV+

In a moment when we are starved for the kinetic energy and giddy thrum of reveling to live music in darkened venues, cueing up both Letter to You, the new album from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and its Apple TV + companion documentary, is like sitting down to a buffet in an oasis.

While the 12-track album — including the reworking of three unreleased tunes from the '70s — is a solid entry into the band's catalog, mining rich veins of nostalgia, gratitude, and hope, the documentary offers all that and much more. The 90-minute film, directed by longtime Springsteen compatriot Thom Zimny, combines a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the album at Springsteen's rustic home studio over the course of five days — as well as a full live performances of 10 tracks,  archival footage and photos, and a narrative voiceover that is by turns illuminating, comic, and bittersweet. (Seriously, if Morgan Freeman ever hangs up his hat, the Boss could have a new career. And now he's got Broadway experience!)

Both projects are out Oct. 23 and continue in the same sepia-tinted frame of mind from Springsteens' 2016 memoir Born to Run, continued with his dramatized  Broadway stint  in 2017, and extended with the 2019 album/film combo of Western Stars. Ruminating on mortality, the loss of loved ones, the vigor of youth, and the need to celebrate what we have now, Letter to You feels like yet another piece of art that was crafted for just this moment — even if it is largely concerned with the rearview.

Credit: Apple TV+

But as ethereally lovely as "I'll See You in My Dreams" is — feeling like a sly homage to Roy Orbison's "In Dreams — or how enjoyable the stroll through the mists of time may be on the sturdy rocker "Last Man Standing," or how perfectly vintage Springsteen the whisper-to-Wall-of-Sound lift of "Power of Prayer" is, the songs pack a more muscular wallop watching the band perform them in the film. "Ghosts," one of the few gleefully giddy pure rockers on the deliberate and contemplative collection, is a pleasing foot-stomper on record but a marrow-deep thrill to watch the group shoulder to shoulder belting out its gang vocals. (Although that song's nagging similarities to a few others including "When the Walls Came Down" by the Call and Steve Earle's "I Ain't Ever Satisfied" is a little distracting. The internet also informs that it's reminiscent of the Rolling Stones' "Sing This All Together" as well, so clearly a popular chord progression.)

And that may be part of the excitement, that the film is scratching a particular of-the-moment itch such that watching them play right now feels more vibrant than only listening to them play. (What Springsteen fan wouldn't kill for a show right now?) And maybe it's just a treat to see them and watch how Springsteen exults in this band of brothers and sisters, how he praises and salutes them in their first album together of mainly original material in eight years — and the first sessions in which they are recording live in a room together since Born in the U.S.A. Tributes to the late Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, glockenspiels and sax solos, vivid character studies and allusions to the edge of town, it's all here, and if you are a longtime fan it's all deeply comforting.

Even though they don't break each song down bar by bar, the glimpse we do get of how the hive mind swarms to arrange the songs is a process nerd's dream.  We watch as the band members — guitarists Steven Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, bass player Garry Tallent, drummer Max Weinberg, pianist Roy Bittan, sax man Jake Clemons, keyboardist Charlie Giordano, and backing vocalist-guitarst Patti Scialfa —gather around Bruce with notepads in hand as he plays an acoustic version of a tune and then work out the details together. He's the captain, but the ship doesn't run without every single person's contribution.

That Zimny intercuts this with footage of the band in the studio in the early days lends the whole package a sweetness that is always warm but never overly sentimental. (At one point, when Springsteen is talking about some of those earlier '70s tracks he is resurrecting for this project, he says with a self-deprecating laugh,  "Get ready for some wild lyrics.") It's a fantastic fly-on-the-wall experience that,  while obviously curated, in a time of social distance reminds fans of the true alchemy of these Rock & Roll Hall of Famers, and draws them as close as is currently allowed.

"I am in the middle of a 45-year conversation with these men and women that I’m surrounded by and with some of you," the 71 year-old singer-songwriter intones near the start of the doc, shot in the black and white that is never evident in his songs since, more than most, he understands the shades of grey.  "I’ve tried to make the conversation essential, fun, and entertaining."

Mission accomplished.

GRADE:

Letter to You, B+

Apple TV+'s Letter to You, A

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