Stephen King once lamented that Bruce Springsteen never became an actor. From his music videos, the great horror scribe theorised, it’s obvious he would have been pretty damn good. King even went as far as to deem Bruce his top pick to play Larry Underwood in The Stand, and it’s hard to argue with his logic. Watch the videos for ‘I’m On Fire’ and ‘Glory Days’ and all the hallmarks of a great, naturalistic actor are there in plain sight, a languid ease that brings to mind Mitchum or Viggo Mortensen. For all his high-octane performances on stage, off it Springsteen moves and speaks quietly and carefully, his eyes and timbre betraying a man who mulls over every word twice… and then once more for good luck.
So far, Springsteen has only ever acted in a film once, in High Fidelity, and he stole the whole film – even though he was just playing himself, sitting on a chair, dispensing wisdom and busting out blues licks on his old butterscotch Telecaster. For author and long-time Springsteen devotee Nick Hornby, it must have been somewhat mind-blowing. The scene doesn’t feature in Hornby’s novel, but John Cusack and his co-writers came up with the idea and Cusack knew Bruce well enough to approach him.
The one Springsteen appearance as an actual character was on the small screen, alongside his long-time lieutenant Steve Van Zandt, in Lilyhammer, a darkly humorous merging of Scandi noir and mafia wise guys. Springsteen appears in the season three finale, playing the older brother of Van Zandt’s gangster-in-hiding. The episode was directed by Van Zandt himself, who somewhat understated it when he admitted that directing his friend of 50 years (and boss of 40) caused him, “a little bit of anxiety”.
Though he only popped up in one film, Springsteen has made invaluable contributions to many more through his music. Most notably, he won an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a Grammy in 1994 for his song ‘Streets of Philadelphia’, from Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia. The song is quintessential Bruce, heartfelt and earnest but stopping short of the sentimentality that he’s sometimes unjustly accused of. There’s no saving grace in brotherhood here, just a “faithless kiss” and a protagonist left “wasting away” alone on the streets. The bare bones music video only amplifies the song’s impact.
Bruce was nominated for an Oscar again two years later, this time for his song ‘Dead Man Walkin’, which he wrote for Sean Penn’s film of the same name. Penn was briefly engaged to Bruce’s sister Pamela, but he and his almost-brother-in-law remained inextricably linked beyond the end of that relationship, kindred spirits in their representation of the plight of the working man and the wrongly persecuted through their art. Penn would go on to base his film The Indian Runner on Bruce’s song ‘Highway Patrolman’ off his irresistibly stark Nebraska album – itself shot through with the influence of Terrence Malick’s Badlands. Bruce then wrote a new song ‘The Missing’ for Penn’s relentlessly bleak next film, The Crossing Guard.
Not that Penn is the only filmmaker to find a sympathetic mind in Bruce. Director John Sayles has had a long-standing friendship and symbiotic working relationship with Springsteen, one which started when Bruce gave him permission to use ‘Adam Raised A Cain’ in Baby, It’s You. Bruce was impressed by Sayles’s film and hired him to direct the music videos for ‘Born In The U.S.A.’, ‘I’m On Fire’ and ‘Glory Days’. Coincidentally, the album that contained those three songs, Born In The U.S.A., also has a film connection. Bruce ‘borrowed’ the name from a script he saw lying around in Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader’s house. Schrader eventually renamed his film Light Of Day and Springsteen wrote the titular song to be performed in the film by Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett.
Sayles and Springsteen would reteam in 1999 for Sayles’s film Limbo, which features Springsteen’s eerie ballad ‘Lift Me Up’ over the closing credits. The film tells the story of the burgeoning relationship between David Strathairn’s small-town handyman and Mary Elisabeth Mastrantonio’s nightclub singer. After Strathairn’s brother runs afoul of a criminal gang, the two lovers are stranded on a remote island, unsure if they’ll be found by friends or foes. The sound of an approaching plane engine gives way to the oscillating drone of the song’s synths, the thumping heart of a bass drum and the screen fades to black. It’s probably the finest use of a Springsteen song in a film.
More recently, Springsteen’s songs found an effective home in a very appropriate place: David Simon’s HBO miniseries Show Me A Hero. Over six episodes, Simon tells the true story of the youngest mayor in America (Oscar Isaac’s Nick Wasicsko) and his handling of a 1980s public housing row that stoked racial and social tensions. Those six episodes feature no less than eight Springsteen songs, most notably the tense and brooding ‘Gave It A Name’.
If his famous film friends haven’t enticed Bruce into acting in a more substantial way, it seems we’ll have to make do with his film contribution being restricted to songs on soundtracks. But consider this, the man proved he can write prose with his stunning autobiography Born To Run, and we already know he’s a born storyteller. What might he do with a screenplay? We’d pay good money to find out.
The ten best uses of Springsteen songs in film and TV
- Lift Me Up – Limbo
- Streets of Philadelphia – Philadelphia
- Gave It A Name – Show Me A Hero
- Stolen Car – Copland
- O Mary Don’t You Weep – Deadwood
- I’m On Fire – The Hunter
- Hungry Heart – The Handmaid’s Tale
- Tougher Than The Rest – Wild
- The Wrestler – The Wrestler
- Dead Man Walkin’ – Dead Man Walkin’