Watch a documentary on a musician and his music, and what do you expect? A biopic, perhaps? A film about his beginnings, his inspirations, the way his fans have changed him, the crippling (or enabling) effects of fame? A glimpse, perhaps, into the singer as a man the humanising of someone touched by the supernatural glow of celebrity. Or perhaps it's a concert documentary: a film focused more closely on talent and musicianship. Much as pioneering rock-and-roll icon Bruce Springsteen is deserving of all such cinematic treatment, Springsteen & I, refreshingly, falls into none of those categories. Instead, it's a movie for his fans and made by his fans and, as a result, one that works very well too as an examination of the modern phenomena of celebrity culture and fandom.
Checking in with Springsteen's fans from all over the world, the documentary is spliced together from their home videos and personal accounts resulting in stories that range from the hilarious (a mother who has forcibly passed her love for the Boss down to her offspring) to the touching (a British couple get an unexpected surprise when they fly to New York to catch a live concert). Fans talk about the electric moments in which they find themselves unexpectedly sharing Springsteen's spotlight, whether it's onstage or in an impromptu street performance. Of course, there's much ruminating on the way in which Springsteen's music has underscored and even changed the lives of his fans even if they've never had the chance to see him perform live.
There's a real danger at every point in the film that it might become too mawkish and self-congratulatory. Indeed, if this were a documentary made by any other world-famous celebrity, it would likely come off as self-aggrandising, arrogant pablum. But because Springsteen has somehow managed to maintain a reputation for humility and being, as a fan put its, very much "salt of the earth", despite being one of the biggest stars on the planet, he just about gets away with it. Fans of the man and his music will recognise their own stories in these sweet, affecting tales, which ring with truth and a shared passion.
On the other hand, non-fans and neophytes might find the general air of breathless reverence somewhat off-putting although there are certainly elements in the film which they can probably appreciate too. Director Baillie Walsh puts the story together with a light touch, taking care to inject humour into the proceedings. Specifically, she presents the point of view of, for want of a better term, a "fan-in-law" a man who dutifully but reluctantly accompanies his Springsteen-obsessed wife to concerts all over Europe. It's moments like these that expand the film beyond a mere homage to a celebrity. Look a little deeper, and the vignettes in Springsteen & I reveal a great deal about passion and fandom: the need for human connection, the power of music and poetry, the community and camaraderie that can form from shared interests.
Another undeniable huge draw of Springsteen & I is the live footage that runs throughout the film, as well as the exclusive concert highlights that unspool after the credits. The sense where the former is concerned is of Springsteen sharing the limelight with his fans: his performances, including some rare, purportedly never-before-seen live footage, are tied into their stories. He riffs charmingly on the hidden subtext in Red-Headed Woman, for instance, or sings Born To Run across years and generations to close out the film. The concert reel after the credits, taken from his Hard Rock Calling performance in London last year and featuring Sir Paul McCartney, includes six rousing, wonderfully-performed rock anthems that are alone worth the price of admission.
For anyone who's ever loved something or someone in an indescribable, soul-deep way, even if it isn't Springsteen (but especially if it is), Springsteen & I is a movie that will resonate. It acknowledges the huge, enormous place celebrity, music, culture and art can occupy in someone's life, without the derogatory allusions that usually come with being classified a nerd, a geek or obsessive. For those unacquainted with the cult of Springsteen, be warned: this could prove both annoying and cloying, though there's also a chance he and his fans could charm you with the strength of their love and devotion.