Each week Elma and I give you 5 opinionated but culturally relevant choices, based on our experience of curating smart sticky stuff for Ovation, Trio, Bravo, A&E, Sundance, Fuse, and others.
Poor man wanna be rich
Rich man wanna be king
And a king ain’t satisfied
‘Til he rules everything…
Here at The Thread our appreciation of Bruce Springsteen bloomed late, so reading Born To Run, his recent (and remarkably self-written) autobiography, taught us a lot about the evolution and rise of Springsteen as America’s most prominent working class poet.
People more knowledgeable about music have complained that the book doesn’t go deep enough; others have told us that the facts aren’t always straight. But for tramps like us, it was a rewarding reintroduction to The Boss and his often socially resonant songs.
Like any Boomer talking about his life, Springsteen peppers the book with casual references to movies — Midnight Cowboy; The Good, The Bad and the Ugly; The Godfather trilogy, Groundhog Day, even Clouzot’s Wages of Fear.
But there are other films and filmmakers that were more direct influences on his sensibilities and the stories he tells. This week’s list is five of those, plus a great documentary about a pivotal moment in his career.
This HBO documentary covers a crucial turning point in Springsteen’s career. 1975’s Born to Run had rocketed him to stardom and the covers of both Time and Newsweek; but he was brought to a screeching halt by prolonged litigation with his first manager/producer, Mike Appel.
When he finally went back into the studio with the E Street Band, he produced a more complicated album that was an homage to his working-class origins – 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. The gap, combined with the noir tinge that album, slowed his pop star ascent but deepened his artistic roots.
Springsteen watched a lot of John Ford’s westerns – morality tales that are simultaneously simple and multilayered. The stories have many similarities, yet Ford managed to avoid repeating himself.
According to Andrew Sarris, The Grapes of Wrath transformed Ford into “Ameica’s cinematic Poet Laureate” – and despite its pointed social message the movie was both a critical and box office success. Springsteen’s Album The Ghost of Tom Joad is based on the lead character from the book/movie, who also inspired Woody Guthrie’s “The Ballad of Tom Joad.’
Tom Joad is played by Henry Fonda in the movie. Evicted from their farm in the middle of the Dust Bowl era, the Joad family struggles their way west along Route 66. They finally reach the promised land of California only to find conditions equally oppressive there. And yet, despite all the misuse and struggle they endure, the Joads persevere.
In his book, Springsteen says he stole the line “born in the USA” from a Paul Schrader screenplay. But the song itself was inspired by the best-selling 1976 autobiography by wheelchair- bound Vietnam Veteran Ron Kovic. The two met in L.A. just after Springsteen read the book, and became friends. The album Born in the USA came out in 1984, and was massively popular, the most successful of Springsteen’s career.
In Oliver Stone’s movie, Tom Cruise plays Kovic, a gung-ho Marine who enlists but progressively more and more disillusioned — first by the ruthlessness of the Vietnam war itself; then by his paralyzing injury; and finally by the way he is treated after his return to the States.
He eventually becomes convinced that the entire Viet Nam enterprise is misguided and joins Veterans Against the War. He becomes a prominent protester and public speaker, reviled by the Nixon administration.
The film was the second of three Nam movies for Viet Vet Stone and won him an Oscar. The role marked a surprising turn in Cruise’s career, earning him cred as a serious actor and with it a nomination for Best Actor.
This seems like an incongruous pick for Springsteen, except that he was always drawn to the moody grit of noir. He also likes the child narrator. The boy, John, is the only one who isn’t fooled by the ersatz preacher. As Springsteen wrote his first acoustic album, Nebraska, he felt that the songs were all autobiographical, written from the truth of a child’s point of view.
Night is a creepy black-and-white film, the only film directed by prominent actor and theatre director Charles Laughton. Robert Mitchum was a Springsteen favorite. Here he plays the slimy serial killer who masquerades as an itinerant preacher and seduces the widow (a remarkably low-key Shelley Winters) of an executed bank robber. His real goal is the robber’s fortune, stashed in a child’s doll.
The widow is killed, the children flee and are taken in by a tough old woman, who guards them through the night until the killer is caught.
The film falls into one of our favorite categories – failures that come to be regarded as indelible landmarks. This cult classic is amazing for many details – the preacher/killer intoning “Chillldren!”; the words “L-O-V-E” and “H-A-T-E” which the preacher has tattooed across his knuckles; and the image of the old woman, played by silent star Lillian Gish, sitting in her rocking chair on the screen porch with a shotgun across her knees.
Springsteen’s song of the same title came out in 1978, the lead track on Darkness at the Edge of Town, his fourth album. Springsteen is a professed admirer of Terrence Malick and says he had the title long before he wrote the song.
Both the movie (Malick’s first) and another Springsteen song, the 1982 “Nebraska” are based on the exploits of Charles Starkweather, a 17-year-old who went on a killing spree across Wyoming and Nebraska in the winter of 1958, accompanied by his 13-year-old girlfriend.
Sissy Spacek plays Holly, the 15-year-old girl who narrates the film in romance novel clichés. It was her second movie and a breakout role. The Starkweather figure is Kit, played by Martin Sheen, looking like Starkweather’s idol, James Dean. Sheen was a bit more established (The Subject Was Roses) but this role landed him too squarely in the spotlight.
The spree starts when Holly’s father who objects to their growing romance. They shoot him and set the house on fire, then the two take off on a roadtrip, killing with cold abandon as they travel across the broad cinematic swaths of American landscape that became one of Malick’s signatures.
At the time the movie was released, nobody could ignore the link to Bonnie and Clyde, 7 years before. But Badlands made the link between lack youthful ennui, pop culture, and casual psychopathic violence that would become almost a cliché. Starkweather’s story was also the basis of Kalifornia (Brad Pitt, 1993) and Natural Born Killers (Woody Harrelson, 1994). Is it strange that Juliette Lewis played the young girlfriend in both films?
By the time Jonathan Demme asked Springsteen to write the theme for his breakthrough 1993 AIDS movie, Springsteen was already the demi-god of the working class rock anthem. Like the movie itself and art at it’s best, the song transforms the very specific and isolated experience of AIDS into a universal experience that touches us all. The single was one of Springsteen’s most successful; even more successful around the world than it was in the US.
In the movie, Tom Hanks plays a closeted gay lawyer who is fired on trumped up causes by his law firm when they suspect he has AIDS. When he sues his firm, a black lawyer, played by Denzel Washington is spooked by the spectre of the disease and drops Hanks’ case. He sets out to represent himself, but the black lawyer sees him again and this time, disgusted by his own prejudice, takes on the case, which plays out as Hanks health continues to deteriorate.
Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner uses the trial as a very effective device to set up and knock down the layers of prejudice and fear that had surrounded AIDS. Combined with the incredible performances – and the simple presence of superstars Hanks and Washington in these roles (this was the same year as Sleepless In Seattle, a year after Malcolm X), the movie marked a cultural turning point in the battle against AIDS.
Demme himself shot the video for the song: