Vol 1: BADLANDS
“Lights out tonight, trouble in the heartland
Got a head-on collision smashin’ in my guts, man
I’m caught in a crossfire that I don’t understand”
So go the opening lines of Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands,” the first track off his 1978 masterpiece Darkness on the Edge of Town. In his autobiography, discussing the changes he made between making his commercial breakthrough with Born to Run in ‘75 and recording Darkness in ‘77, Springsteen writes, “I began to find some inspiration in the working-class blues of the Animals, pop hits like the Easybeats’ ‘Friday on My Mind’ and the country music I’d so long ignored. Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie: here was music that emotionally described a life I recognized, my life, the life of my family and neighbors.” This return to tradition would bring with it a significant change in his songwriting and in the music itself, which drifted away from the Van Morrison tics and lyrical Dylanisms that defined his first two records and settled into something far more disciplined, Spartan, and ultimately unique— what Springsteen calls his “samurai record.” In this sense, Darkness was less an evolution than a regression, albeit one that freed Springsteen’s mind and helped him to refine his approach. He and the E-Street Band played live in the studio with little to no overdubs, privileging lean arrangements and wide-open production that evoked space rather than mass. His stories became less ambitious in scope but far more precise in their execution, a formalization better suited to his intent. Gone was the entertaining yet baffling prolixity of “madman drummers bummers and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat,” supplanted by starker prose and more cinematic portraiture. “Film became a great influence, and my title Darkness on the Edge of Town was straight out of American noir,” he writes. “I’d settled on a sound that was leaner and less grand than Born to Run, one I felt would better suit the voices I was trying to bring to life. I was on new ground and searching for a tone somewhere between Born to Run’s spiritual hopefulness and seventies cynicism. That cynicism was what my characters were battling against.”
While Darkness may sound like noir, the film that inspired its title track was anything but Bogey & Bacall. Badlands, written & directed by Terrence Malick, was released in October 1973, premiering at the New York Film Festival along with Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. At the time, Malick was a student at AFI in Los Angeles. The film was independently produced on a budget of about $300k— or just under $2m by today’s standards— and distributed by Warner Brothers. Time’s Jay Cocks described the film as “an elaboration and reply” to Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde, which had been a hit despite its controversial depictions of violence, winning two Oscars and grossing $70m in 1967. By comparison, Badlands was neither a critical nor commercial success at the time, though it’s now considered a minor classic thanks in part to its inclusion in the Criterion Collection. Malick went on to become one of the most beloved auteurs in film history, from Days of Heaven (for which he won Best Director at Cannes) to The Thin Red Line (nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Director) to The Tree of Life (winner of the Palme d’Or). And while the increasing scope of his films makes Badlands seem almost quaint by comparison, it’s no less quintessential a work— and in many ways, more watchable— than those that followed.
Badlands has all the stylistic hallmarks of a Malick film: poetic voiceover, classical music, stunning landscape shots, transportive production design by Jack Fisk. Most noteworthy, perhaps, is the true story that inspired it: in 1958, Charles Starkweather and his underage girlfriend, Caril Anne Fugate, went on an eight-day murder spree, claiming eleven lives and eventually landing Starkweather in the electric chair (Nebraska’s last execution until ’94). The story made national news, and Malick used it as the jumping-off point for his fictionalized tale of fugitive lovers Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek). Kit is a James Dean doppelganger who behaves like a character Dean himself would have played; this choice would read as meta if Kit himself weren’t actively perpetuating it. “He thinks of himself as a successor to James Dean— a Rebel without a Cause— when in reality he's more like an Eisenhower conservative,” Malick says in a 1975 interview with Sight and Sound. “He wants to be like them, like the rich man he locks in the closet, the only man he doesn't kill, the only man he sympathizes with, and the one least in need of sympathy. It's not infrequently the people at the bottom who most vigorously defend the very rules that put and keep them there.” Holly, on the other hand, is a more complex character: she’s an object of desire, an accomplice, a cipher, the film’s narrator, and yet unreliable in each of these assigned roles. She never kills anyone, her point of view is unmoored by the morality and logic that most audiences expect, and her observations have nothing to do with plot. Her narration is so oblique it plays like free association, as is the case with all of Malick’s films. The more naïve or trivial the thought, the more you believe it would cross the mind of a 14-year-old who just watched her boyfriend murder her father, then proceeded to run away with said boyfriend on a homicidal honeymoon. Per Malick: “Holly says, ‘Sometimes I wished I could fall asleep and be taken off to some magical land, but this never happened.’ But she enough believes there is such a place that she must confess to you she never got there.”
Badlands evidently made quite an impression on a 28-year-old Bruce Springsteen. He explores his own “Badlands” from the perspective of the proverbial Angry Young Man, seeking to break free from the shackles of society, no longer content to “spend (his) life waiting for a moment that just don’t come.” The song is a raging kiss-off to the nine-to-five, the white picket fence, the provincial mindset that stands in the way of self-actualization, i.e. hitting the open road and chasing your dream, whatever that dream may be. Like Kit, Springsteen’s narrator rejects Eisenhower’s America, albeit without any trace of the envy and sympathy that Malick attributes to his antihero. Springsteen later revisited the subject, in even greater detail, on the title track of 1982’s Nebraska. Where “Badlands” is a thematic echo of the film, “Nebraska” traces its themes back to their real-life source: the Starkweather murders. “I saw her standing on her front lawn just twirling her baton / Me and her went for a ride, sir, and ten innocent people died.” Springsteen doesn’t dwell on the gory details, but rather limits his scope to Starkweather’s final thoughts, addressed to the Sheriff overseeing his execution. The arrangement mirrors the content, as Springsteen fingerpicks an acoustic guitar— accompanied only by his own harmonica and what sounds like an overdubbed glockenspiel— onto a 4-track tape recorder, a sound as sparse and monochromatic as the album’s cover art. Springsteen’s fascination with the emotional honesty of experiences that aren’t his own— factory workers, soldiers, killers— is what makes this song so much more than the sum of its history.
The same is true for Badlands as a film: Malick privileges the detached subjectivity of his protagonists over the harsh reality of their actions. As NYT's Vincent Canby observed, “Kit and Holly are directionless creatures, technically literate but uneducated in any real sense, so desensitized that Kit (in Malick's words at a news conference) can regard the gun with which he shoots people as a kind of magic wand that eliminates small nuisances.” Malick further supports Canby’s interpretation: “The critics talked about influences on the picture and in most cases referred to films I had never seen. My influences were books like The Hardy Boys, Swiss Family Robinson, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn— all involving an innocent in a drama over his or her head.” Where Badlands could have easily turned into a seedy docudrama a la Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or a sensationalized shoot ‘em up a la Bonnie & Clyde, such deft characterization elevates the film into the realm of fairytales. In Malick’s view, the killer is neither sympathetic nor evil, but rather a man-child living in a fiction, a resident of his own self-perpetuated reality. “Kit doesn't see himself as anything sad or pitiable, but as a subject of incredible interest, to himself and to future generations,” says Malick. “Like Holly, like a child, he can only really believe in what's going on inside him. Death, other people's feelings, the consequences of his actions— they're all sort of abstract for him.” Canby seems to agree: “Malick spends no great amount of time invoking Freud to explain the behavior of Kit and Holly, nor is there any Depression to be held ultimately responsible. Society is, if anything, benign.” Likewise, Springsteen offers no explanation for Starkweather’s crimes beyond the simplest admissions:
“I can’t say that I’m sorry for the things that we done
At least for a little while, sir, me and her we had us some fun"
"They wanted to know why I did what I did
Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world”
It’s nowhere near as nihilistic as Johnny Cash shooting a man “just to watch him die,” but it’s a far cry from the folk songs that turned Billy the Kid and Jesse James into folk heroes.
Then again, sometimes a sensationalized shoot ‘em up— complete with a moral compass— is exactly what the audience wants. Quentin Tarantino understands that craving, hence the pop-art pastiche that is 1993’s True Romance. The story of fugitive lovers Clarence (Christian Slater) and Alabama (Patricia Arquette), the film bears little resemblance story-wise to the Starkweather murders, but it borrows heavily from Badlands in other areas. Alabama narrates the film in an echo of Holly, the latter’s childlike poetry supplanted by something more akin to comic-book captions in Alabama’s case— an allusion reinforced by the film’s title, a reference to romance comics of the ‘50s. The film even goes so far as to ape Badlands’ soundtrack: composer Hans Zimmer’s xylophone-centric “You’re So Cool” is essentially an adaptation of Carl Orff’s “Gassenhauer,” an early 20th century classical piece used by Malick in lieu of original score. The rest of True Romance adheres to that amphetamine-and-cola blend of Scorsese, Elmore Leonard, Don Siegel, and John Woo that characterizes Tarantino’s early work, all of it topped with a ‘90s action flick patina courtesy of director Tony Scott. That the man behind Top Gun and The Last Boy Scout directed the film instead of Tarantino only adds to its layers of genrefication. If Badlands is a daydream about love and murder, True Romance is an advertisement for it. I’m not sure how many filmgoers in ’93 recognized the Badlands references— Janet Maslin and Roger Ebert somehow missed them— but surely Springsteen was one of the few (assuming that he saw the film, which bombed at the box office). The Telegraph’s Mark Monahan mentions the connection in a 2003 interview with Bill Paxton about the latter's lifelong love of Badlands. Re: True Romance, Paxton responds, “That film I wouldn't even put in the same theatre!”
Of course, True Romance wasn’t Tarantino’s only attempt to tell this story. Soon after selling the script— the proceeds of which helped finance his directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs— he sold another spec: Natural Born Killers, the story of (you guessed it) fugitive lovers Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis). Where Clarence and Alabama are sympathetic in that they only killed criminals who had it coming (as it were), Mickey and Mallory make even the real life Starkweather and Fugate look tame by comparison. They’re somewhere between desperadoes and serial killers, and the body count they leave in their wake would make Rambo and the Terminator blush. Unlike True Romance, however, the script for Natural Born Killers was significantly rewritten by director Oliver Stone, who wanted to satirize the media’s glorification of violence. Indeed, the finished film turns the most sordid headlines— Rodney King, OJ Simpson, Tonya Harding, the Menendez Brothers— into a bad acid trip starring the most terminally co-dependent couple in history. Stone’s Mickey & Mallory take Vincent Canby’s observation that Badlands’ “Kit and Holly are members of the television generation run amok” to its furthest extreme. Where True Romance pureed its influences into a smooth (if unoriginal) cocktail, Natural Born Killers revels in the aesthetic incongruities of postmodernism. Hard cuts, splices, shifts in color palette and aspect ratio, needle-drops in every scene— it’s a snuff film starring pop culture as the perpetrator and the audience as the victim. In ’94, the film stirred up even more controversy than Bonnie & Clyde did in ’67, not just for its graphic content, but for the copycat crimes it inspired. Even Tarantino said, “I hated that fucking movie. If you like my stuff, don’t watch that movie.”
Musically, Natural Born Killers is a mixed bag— channeling the protagonists’ bipolarity in the tension between sweet nostalgia (Patsy Cline, The Shangri-Las) and violent modernity (Nine Inch Nails, L7, Rage Against the Machine)— but some cuts feature more heavily than others. The Cowboy Junkies’ blissed-out cover of The Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” serves as the love theme, reprising anytime Mickey and Mallory rekindle their romance amidst the chaos. Elsewhere, Leonard Cohen’s “Waiting for the Miracle” hints at the darkness of the present even as it acknowledges a hope for the future— a necessary reminder that Mickey and Mallory are killing to love, not necessarily loving to kill. They started down this road as an escape from their traumatic pasts, the explanation— if not the excuse— for their psychopathy. When we hear Cohen sing “Let’s do something crazy, something absolutely wrong / While we’re waiting for the miracle to come” in this context, we’re reminded of Springsteen-as-Starkweather (“me and her we had us some fun”) and, before that, as the small-town kid “waiting for a moment that just don’t come.” “Waiting for the Miracle” is one of three songs from Cohen’s The Future (1992) that Stone features in Natural Born Killers. At the climax of the prison-break sequence that comprises the film’s third act, “Anthem” reminds us that “there is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in”— that perfection is not humanity’s defining trait. It’s a moving sentiment, even in the wake of all the carnage we’ve witnessed up to this point, and in keeping with the troubling fact that we can’t help but root for Mickey & Mallory as they feed a corrupt warden (Tommy Lee Jones) to his inmates and perform an execution by firing squad on a sensationalist reporter (Robert Downey Jr.). Of course, the multivalent irony of this dynamic gets called out in the credits, set to Cohen’s “The Future.” Once again, the line “Give me absolute control over every living soul” echoes the demands for control in “Badlands.” Cohen warns “I’ve seen the future, brother / It is murder” in one verse, but adds that “Love’s the only engine of survival” in another— the very dialectic that drives Natural Born Killers, True Romance, and Badlands.
Leonard Cohen has been a staple of film soundtracks ever since Robert Altman featured his songs so prominently in McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971). By ’93, Springsteen had followed suit by penning the Oscar-winning “Streets of Philadelphia” for Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, the first of many such collaborations: the title tracks from Tim Robbins’ Dead Man Walking and Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, to name a couple. Prior to this turning point, however, Springsteen rarely licensed songs for film & TV— notable exceptions being Risky Business (“Hungry Heart”) and Michael Moore’s doc Roger & Me (“My Hometown”)— which isn’t to say that Hollywood didn’t try their best. Witness Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire, the 1984 “rock & roll fable” inspired by the song of the same name (also from Darkness on the Edge of Town). Hill and the producers wanted to use the song as the film’s theme, but when Springsteen found out that they planned to rerecord it with different singers (the ones playing the fictional band within the film), he refused. The filmmakers then hired Jim Steinman to write an original song, “Tonight is What It Means to Be Young,” to replace “Streets of Fire,” though you can probably guess why they didn’t change the film’s title. As with Steinman’s work on Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, “Tonight” is pseudo-Springsteen by way of Broadway, the turnpike opera of “Jungleland” and “Thunder Road”— complete with ‘50s greaser tropes— adapted to the silver screen and rendered hopelessly ‘of its time’ by chintzy production, which is surprising given the fact that it was produced by Jimmy Iovine, who engineered and mixed Darkness. Simply put, it’s a Springsteen musical without Springsteen.
By collaborating with filmmakers on his terms and his terms alone, Springsteen not only upheld his reputation as an exacting perfectionist, but also reasserted his love for cinema as an artform of its own. Though he has never collaborated with Terrence Malick, their association deepens via the music of Italian composer Ennio Morricone (R.I.P.), who scored Malick’s Days of Heaven. In 2007, Springsteen covered Morricone’s theme from Once Upon a Time in the West for a tribute compilation. A coincidence, perhaps, but then again there’s something about the deep-tissue affinities between two artists— shared DNA, if you will— that resounds even more than the immediate satisfaction of on-the-nose allusion. Both Badlands and Days of Heaven are Western-set films that reframe their outlaw tropes through an impressionist lens. Meanwhile, Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska are honest attempts at social realism that— thanks to Springsteen’s gift for anthemic songwriting, with or without a band at his back— become as mythic as any Western in the process. The harder he looks at “The Promised Land,” the richer the landscape appears to us. The fact that John Ford— one of Springsteen's favorite filmmakers— directed both Stagecoach and The Grapes of Wrath speaks to the kind of contradictions that compel the Boss as a songwriter.
On last year’s Western Stars, rather than return to E-Street and his usual subject matter, Springsteen tipped his secondhand Stetson to the late great Glen Campbell and his highly cinematic strain of late ’60s country-pop, most of it written by Jimmy Webb and performed by the Wrecking Crew. The fact that Western Stars came out the same year as Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is yet another telling coincidence. Both the title track and “Drive Fast (The Stuntman)” reference the types of characters featured in Once Upon a Time: a fading actor best known for getting gunned down by John Wayne onscreen, and a stunt driver who has lived his whole life on the edge. Had Tarantino’s film and Springsteen’s album not been released within a month of each other, you’d think these songs were about Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). All these years later, long after their respective odes to Badlands, two artists in separate mediums have unknowingly crossed paths once again, like ships in the night, via their own personal homages to Old Hollywood and its most cherished myths. "I did see it, and I thought, yeah, that’s a funny little coincidence,” said Springsteen in an interview with Rotten Tomatoes' Erik Davis. “I really loved it – that was one of my favorite pictures of the past year. It was quite touching, and quite lovely.” And let’s not forget that Tarantino borrowed his film’s title from Sergio Leone, who wrote & directed both Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America, or that Tarantino has used Ennio Morricone’s music— both original and repurposed— in all of his films since Kill Bill.
We can chalk these intertextual relationships up to shared tastes, but if we look at these works as a canon unto themselves, what does that canon signify? The semiotics of guns, guitars, sex, and media in American society? The yearning for bloody catharsis that our nation’s history of violence instills in us? The romanticizing of rugged individualism, from James Dean to Cliff Booth, and the costs thereof? Our obsession with seeing our own pasts and futures through a Panavision lens? Consider the fact that in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Cliff and Rick— two sides of a platonic love story or ‘bromance’— avert the Manson murders with a killing spree aimed back at the killers, though Rick plays many a killer on TV and Cliff may already be one in real life. Is Tarantino inverting the dynamic of Badlands by giving the victims their due, or is he excusing violence the same way that he did in True Romance and, to a lesser extent, Natural Born Killers? Is Springsteen showing empathy for Charles Starkweather and/or Kit in “Badlands” and “Nebraska”? There may be no easy answers to any of these questions, but I think the Boss came the closest to capturing the emotional truth at the core of it all:
"For the ones who had a notion, a notion deep inside That it ain't no sin to be glad you're alive I wanna find one face that ain't looking through me I wanna find one place, I wanna spit in the face of these Badlands"
This week, I sat down with my friend Sean – a screenwriter, cinephile, and lifelong Springsteen fan – to chat about his personal connection to the subjects at hand, namely The Boss, over whom we bonded in college.
S: Don’t even remember when I first became a fan of The Boss. Both sides of my family are from New York and New Jersey. Bruce is the language of my people.
M: What was the first Springsteen song and/or record you heard?
S: Not counting the stuff that was piped into me in utero, and then the constant round the clock play before I was able to form memories, the first I can really recall actively listening to is probably the Christmas stuff. “Merry Christmas Baby.” “And Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” I remember driving to my grandparents’ house in New Jersey, when my family briefly lived in Georgia, and it’s pitch black out because we’ve been driving all day and it’s snowing hard and as soon as we would finally cross the NJ state line, we’d put on Bruce’s Christmas songs to celebrate. We only lived in Georgia from when I was in Kindergarten to 2nd grade. But we’d drive up to NJ at Christmas and do that every time.
M: That’s about as seminal an association with an artist you can have. I didn’t have that with the Boss growing up. I knew who he was thanks to Adam Sandler doing the “Dancing in the Dark” sketch on SNL and featuring his songs in movies (“Growin’ Up” at the end of Big Daddy comes to mind), but I didn’t really connect with his music until high school. Born to Run was the first time I actively and intentionally listened to Springsteen. Darkness followed shortly thereafter.
S: My journey with Bruce is different, but oddly I got back into him around the same time you got into him for the first time. I had a rebellion period from like 11-16. I always loved Bruce, but he didn’t belong to me. I never thought he sucked, but I just wouldn’t listen to him. I got really into The Doors because I was very dramatic and death obsessed and Morrison’s decadence and moroseness and pretentiousness was probably as far from Bruce’s Working Class America thing as I could get. And then around the same time as you in high school, I came back to Bruce on my own. And I reassessed, like, do I actually love him on my own terms and not just because of brainwashing and then nostalgia for those brainwashing years? I decided that I do and I think I would’ve loved him anyway because there is plenty of stuff from my childhood or that my family likes that I’ve totally rejected now. Not the Boss. Also one of my college admission essays I wrote about “Thunder Road.” The essay definitely boiled down to: “Please let me in, I want to get out of New Jersey.” Which is half the Bruce song catalogue, despite him currently living in New Jersey. I actually got the fuck out. But I love New Jersey, too. It’s complicated.
M: I love his current self-awareness about returning to the place he most wanted to escape.
S: It’s the hero’s journey. Start in a place of disunity, leave, have adventures, face your fears, achieve your wildest dreams, then return home having changed.
M: That’s why I feel like he’s one of the few artists who would merit a decade-spanning biopic, as opposed to the isolated moment in time approach I usually prefer. It’s thematically grounded. And you could probably call the movie My Hometown as a wink as to what it’s really about.
S: And reading his book, you really realize what a bohemian, artsy kind of guy he was/is. As opposed to the image that I think I wasn’t interested in from 11-16.
M: You thought he was one of his characters?
M: I feel like that’s the inevitable layman’s confusion. I still meet people— adults— who talk about him like he’s John Mellencamp. A vague FM-rooted awareness of a sound and a look.
S: Getting back into him was about realizing how much he isn’t that. I came back in through Nebraska and the “Ghost of Tom Joad” cover that Rage Against the Machine did. But driving to NJ from Georgia, that memory is very oddly connected to the movie Jack Frost. Where Michael Keaton plays a Bruce knock-off. He’s like a Christmas-only themed Bruce Springsteen.
S: I watched anything with Michael Keaton in it as a rule. And Keaton dies driving home from a Christmas gig in a blizzard in the beginning of that movie. Gets reincarnated as a snowman so he can finally be there for his son in a way he wasn’t in life thanks to his busy touring schedule. Also the animatronic snowman’s face is based off of George Clooney because he was supposed to play the part but dropped out before production began.
M: I don’t know what’s weirder, that or seeing Mark Addy as (E-Street Band keyboardist) Danny Federici. There’s even a Patty Scialfa stand-in on violin!
S: It’s insane. So I saw it in ‘98 and then when we drove up the next two Christmases and it was dark out and snowy I just remember thinking we were gonna get in a car crash and die. And playing Bruce only solidified the subconscious connection. It was made to traumatize me. “You like Bruce Springsteen right? You like Michael Keaton? Well Michael Keaton is gonna play a Bruce stand-in.” Awesome! And then he dies in a car wreck 10 minutes in.
M: There’s a support group for that.
S: We finally stopped making that trek when my family moved back to NJ in 2000. But the reason we moved back is because The Sopranos premiered in 1999 and when “Woke Up This Morning” by Alabama 3 kicked in over all those shots of North Jersey and the Turnpike and Tony driving around my mom immediately said “I miss New Jersey” and we moved back the next year. And it’s showing a part of NJ that I think a lot of people wouldn’t react that way to. The smokestacks and little pork stores with hairy men sitting out front. But she grew up there and it was just like: “Oh I miss this so much.”
M: And what better show to hammer home that combination than The Sopranos? First off, one of the greatest series soundtracks ever. The way it avoids cliche and stays local whenever possible.
S: Tony (Soprano) is such a classic rock aficionado, but I don’t think he’s a Bruce fan. He’s a late ‘60s guy. He’s a generation after Scorsese but much closer to his taste. Big band, doo-wop, Phil Spector stuff, Frankie Valli, through to Cream and The Kinks, etc. So it’s totally appropriate that Tony would remain a bigger fan of the songs that were coming out when he was a kid/teenager and Bruce was a teenager/early 20s.
M: And yet (the show’s creators) pack in so many subtle Springsteen homages that don’t hinge on Tony being a fan. From casting Little Steven (Van Zandt, a core member of the E-Street Band) to shit like this:
M: Just as they show the parts of the landscape that only locals would appreciate, they find the deep tissue connections to NJ’s patron saint of rock & roll. And how fitting that some of Bruce’s biggest influences would be in Tony’s record collection. Those Phil Spector girl groups in particular. The fact that Bruce still shouts “Hal Blaine!” when he wants (E-Street Band drummer) Max Weinberg to play a certain kind of fill dating back to “Be My Baby” and “Then He Kissed Me.”
S: That’s another connection: shows co-starring an E Street member from the early aughts. Because I loved The Sopranos and I loved Late Night with Conan O’Brien. And to my parents, Max Weinberg being his bandleader basically justified me staying up late on school nights or watching the reruns on Comedy Central while I did my homework. He was always so game. Him going along with the character of “Max Weinberg” on Late Night was the best. A sex freak sociopathic lunatic.
M: When was the first time you heard a Springsteen song featured in film or TV?
S: First time I heard Springsteen in a movie was Jerry Maguire. “Secret Garden.” My family used to go to the Outer Banks on vacation and the rental houses always had a big collection of VHS’s and my cousins and I would always watch an R-rated movie after the adults went to bed. Which sometimes meant T2: Judgement Day or an Adam Sandler movie, but this time led to us watching a very emotionally mature relationship dramedy at like 10 or 11 years old.
M: How fitting that it was a Cameron Crowe movie, too. I feel like he’s made a career out of meaningful music cues in film.
S: And he basically uses “Secret Garden” as their love theme.
M: What’s your favorite Springsteen needle-drop of all time?
S: This is difficult. I feel like he’s extremely selective about what he licenses. Not necessarily which movies he licenses to, but what he’ll give them. He has kind of avoided having one of his songs become synonymous with a scene in a movie, unless he wrote the song explicitly for that movie.
M: Exactly. And he scored himself an Oscar and a handful of noms using that approach. I can think of one where he got his cake and ate it too. High Fidelity.
S: I was just about to say that. “Streets of Philadelphia” is the obvious one, but if I had to exempt songs where he wrote the song for the movie, I was between High Fidelity and “Hungry Heart” in Risky Business.
M: Risky Business is one of the earliest examples of him licensing a song to a movie that I could find. The rest came in the ‘90s.
S: Which I feel like it’s either a coincidence or Tom Cruise is a bit of a stealth Boss superfan. Between Risky Business, Jerry Maguire and this moment in Ghost Protocol…
S: (Cruise) did graduate from High School in Glen Ridge, NJ in 1980. So I wanna say he’s definitely involved in these decisions… Because even though Springsteen is one of the most famous people on Earth, it still feels like being a fan of his is belonging to a club and like Tom Cruise is shouting out a local Jersey band by wearing that shirt in a giant blockbuster.
M: And that’s so unique to Bruce. If it were a Stones shirt, you’d just think it was costumer shorthand for “American tourist.”
S: Exactly. But High Fidelity has to be the answer. And he’s basically doing what Val Kilmer does as Elvis in True Romance. But Bruce plays himself. As the imaginary friend giving advice to his obsessive fan. I was also just thinking how Val Kilmer played Jim Morrison in The Doors, and Jim Morrison plays that music icon imaginary friend role to Wayne in Wayne’s World 2. And Val Kilmer is in Top Gun with Cruise; Oliver Stone directs The Doors and also Born on the Fourth of July with Cruise, which I associate with Born in the USA, etc etc.
M: Apparently the High Fidelity writers had to tell Springsteen on the day of the shoot not to play anything specific that they’d have to license, because there wasn’t room in the budget. And he was like, “It’s just blues licks.” I seem to remember that he rewrote one of his lines, too.
S: Of course.
M: I think it’s the line “They’d feel good maybe. But you’d feel better.” Cusack is talking about calling his exes, and says that "they’d feel good" if he did. And Springsteen called BS on it. In the original script, he just agrees with the sentiment.
S: Which is his best line delivery in the scene!
M: Totally. Because it’s his.