Bruce Springsteen borrowed the title for his 1975 song “Thunder Road” from a 1958 Robert Mitchum movie, and since then it’s been borrowed back for a couple of TV movies. But filmmaker Jim Cummings not only took the title for his short film that won the Grand Prize at Sundance this year, he based his film around a performance of the Springsteen song, and even wrangled permission to use the song from the always-picky rock star.
“Thunder Road,” one of the finalists in TheWrap’s ShortList Film Festival, is an alternately funny and wrenching story about a cop (played by Cummings) who goes to his mother’s funeral and, in lieu of delivering a eulogy, sings and dances along with Springsteen’s classic recording, which he says was his mother’s favorite song.
The short sketches complex family relationships using a bare minimum of exposition, and the main character’s troubled and often cringe-inducing performance of “Thunder Road” touchingly shows the complex and messy ways in which music can play out and matter in people’s lives.
“It’s really strange,” Cummings told TheWrap of the reactions he’s seen to his film. “When it’s played in a group of more than three or four people, it gets uproarious laughter throughout. That was my experience at Sundance, being in a crowd that laughed nonstop, to the point where it covers up the dialogue.
“It’s supposed to be funny,” he added, “but there are really heartbreaking admittances in it — this is a dude who has not grieved yet.”
The idea for the film, he said, came to him when a friend told him that his mother had recently attended a funeral at which the dead woman’s son sang a song rather than give a speech or do a Bible reading. “That became a neat idea for a monologue, and I was thinking about it for a while. And then I was driving home exhausted one night, and I heard ‘Thunder Road’ come on the radio.”
Cummings’ own mother was a huge Springsteen fan — so even though he himself had grown up loving Eminem and Garth Brooks, he knew all the lyrics. “But I felt like I heard it for the first time on that drive. And it clicked that my mom would have heard that for the first time when she was 16 or 17, a young woman. And I thought about how I was such a s—head to her growing up, how it must have been so difficult to raise me.
“I was crying with the song stuck in my head. I thought if my mom passed away I’d probably sing that song, and what would happen if I screwed it up and blew it?”
He wrote a script, mapped out the performance of “Thunder Road,” and initially looked for an actor to play the lead role before deciding he should do it himself. He designed the short to be an unbroken take, and filmed it six times over a few hours in a Los Angeles suburb before he felt like he nailed it.
When it was finished, his mother refused to watch it alone, waiting until Cummings came home for Christmas to watch it with him. “She was crying, was really moved by it,” he said. “And as soon as the song came on, it was just us singing the song together and dancing. I saw her light up and become that young woman again.”
Still, he had a problem: Against the advice of almost everybody he knew, Cummings has made the film without knowing if he could get permission to use the song. “I didn’t do that much thinking about it until I got into Sundance,” he said. “And then I thought, ‘I’m not trying to put the song online, and I’m not a pirate.'”
He paid for the film-festival rights to the song — but when he wanted his film to have a life beyond festivals, he had to secure more extensive rights, which for a song as widely known as “Thunder Road” would have been far more expensive than he could afford.
His strategy included writing a letter to Springsteen — and while the results are that he can now show his film online, he can’t talk about how that happened. “It just kind of worked out,” he said cautiously. “All I’m allowed to say is that I’m very happy to be able to put it online.”
And while the fact that he got permission to use the song seems to suggest that Springsteen liked his movie, he doesn’t know for sure. “I can confirm that Bruce has seen the film,” he said. “I don’t know if he enjoyed it. I assume that he has — but I don’t know, and it kills me not to know.”
Watch the film above. Viewers can also screen the films at any time during the festival at Shortlistfilmfestival.com and vote from Aug. 9-23.