"Springsteen and I," which comes to movie theaters in special event screenings on July 22 and 30, is a documentary that used crowdsourcing not to fund the movie, but to shoot it.
The film, produced by Ridley Scott Associates, is compiled from 2,000 video submissions sent in by Bruce Springsteen's fans — and as much as "Springsteen and I" is centered on the iconic rock star, it is really about the devotees and obsessives who have followed him for the past 40 years.
So we get fans talking about what Springsteen's music has mean to them, about the spiritual and sexual awakenings they've had at his concerts, about their encounters with the Boss on the stage and on the street.
"I had great trepidation going into this, because I was dependent on what people sent," director Baillie Walsh told TheWrap. "I didn't know what I was going to get. Now I can say that I really do love the film — and I can say that without bragging, because I didn't actually film anything."
A little disclosure is not only necessary at this point, but central to the story. (It's also going to date me, but here goes.)
I'm a pretty huge Springsteen fan myself. I've seen the guy in concert 98 times, dating back to 1974 when I first encountered him as the opening act to Dr. John at the Santa Monica Civic. Back when "Born in the U.S.A." mania was starting, I wrote a story for the Washington Post titled "Confessions of a Springsteen Fanatic." I got to know him a little covering him over the years for places like Rolling Stone.
And it may be strange, given that history, but I find a fair number of diehard Springsteen fans a little creepy.
So I approached "Springsteen and I" with fascination, but also concern. Did I want to hear fanatics gush about how wonderful the guy is for 75 minutes? Could they tell me anything I didn't know? Would all that Bruce-love just get a little embarrassing? When one person in the film brags about how she's seen him in concert "more than 30" times, would I be able to view that as an impressive number?
In fact, some parts of "Springsteen and I" are embarrassing, some of the people who sent in videos do gush too much, and a running conceit in which fans are asked to use three words to describe the guy doesn't provide much insight or interest.
But Walsh has assembled the film deftly, and it builds to something substantial, charming and emotional.
It's also quite funny, thanks initially to a long-suffering British guy whose wife has dragged him across Europe to concerts even though he doesn't really like Springsteen's music.
"Bruce Springsteen means love," he tells his wife, who is holding the camera. "Not for him. But for you. You being a fan, I've had Bruce Springsteen songs rammed down my throat 24/7."
That segment is a sign that the movie mercifully doesn't take itself, or Springsteen fandom, too seriously. And from there on the anecdotes are funnier and more revealing, the testimonials more eloquent, and the whole thing unexpectedly moving.
I might have initially been inclined to look down my nose at these people, secure in the unassailable purity of my own Springsteen fandom. But I couldn't. Instead, I found that I kind of liked a lot of them, and identified with some of what they were saying, and was affected in a way that surprised me.
"I didn't want it to feel like you were just watching hours of clips and getting tired of it," said Baillie. "What I really contributed to this film was watching every submission that came in and thinking, Who appeals to me? Who am I charmed by? Who would I like to go home and have a drink with?"
Yes, this is a movie by and definitely for Springsteen fans. I suspect it would be too much if you're not already one of the initiated. But the concert footage, which ranges from 1973 to his most recent tour, is often riveting, and the fan stories gain immeasurably from the fact that Walsh has actual footage of the guy who dressed like Elvis and was pulled onstage to sing a duet (above), or the one who was dumped by his girlfriend the day before a concert and brought a sign announcing that fact to show Bruce.
Sometimes that footage is amateur, sometimes from the Springsteen archives. "We'd say to Bruce's people, 'Do you have footage from this gig?,'" said Baillie. "Often they would, but it wouldn't work as well as the footage we already had from people shooting the show on their iPhones."
Springsteen's camp, he added, had a hands-off attitude about the movie. "When we started the process, we presented the idea to persuade them," he said. "And they said, 'Great, we will give you access to the archives and we will give you access to music. We want no editorial control, we want no involvement at all, and we don't want our record company to have any involvement at all. We'll see it when it's finished.'
"That shows so much trust on their part — and I think it was most of all trust in Bruce's fans, because they're the ones who made the movie. Bruce really liked the idea of giving his fans a voice."
Springsteen and his managers Jon Landau and Barbara Carr have all seen the film, and all like it, Baillie said. And for the theatrical showings Monday and on July 30, they've also provided additional unreleased footage from Springsteen's Wrecking Ball tour, along with a special featurette. (Fathom Events is distributing the film in the U.S.; ticket info is available at www.springsteenandi.com and Fathom's site)
The idea of showing the film as a special two-night event rather than a standard theatrical run was in the works from the time he came on board, said Baillie.
"It was always planned for that, and I think it's a very good idea, in a way," he said. "It's going to be like an event. It'll be like going to a gig, I think, because you're bringing all the fans together at one point."
Then again … "Obviously, I would love it if it ran longer in theaters," he admitted. "Of course I would, I'm the director. But this is a great concept, and I'm really hoping that it works."
Creatively, against all odds and perhaps even against the expectations of this longtime fan, it does work. "Springsteen and I" has a good beat, you can dance to it … and it captures the strange state of fandom with a grace, emotion and wit that does its subject justice.