The Cinematic Songs of Bruce Springsteen

By
Christina Newland

The Boss has the ability to sing habitable worlds into existence; his music is intrinsically cinematic.

Few songwriters embody the American spirit better than Bruce Springsteen - or treat it with such a combination of optimism and ambivalence. His musical preoccupation with the open road (from Darlington County to Thunder Road) is a thoroughly Northeastern affair - and much of The Boss’ work is rooted in his own upbringing in Freehold, New Jersey. Still, he’s also a musician with a wide and impressive swath of cultural influences. As far as inspiration goes, he’s cited everything from the short stories of Flannery O’Connor to American detective movies of the 1940’s. Cinema has also long been a fascination for Springsteen - if Darkness on the Edge of Town is his film noir, Born to Run is his road movie. 

All of these influences are discussed in the singer’s newly-released autobiography, Born to Run. With a prose style both bombastic and lyrical, his book is the perfect companion to his musical output.  In it, Springsteen discusses his love of Terrence Malick’s Badlands - a 1973 film exploring the darkest urges of murderous teen runaways Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek). Malick is obsessed by outlaw romanticism, forward momentum, and the disaffected, detached youth who commit these crimes. 

The sense of dread that permeates Badlands can be found in much of Springsteen's songwriting.

You can hear the thrum of this doleful story in Springsteen’s track Badlands, which opines, ‘I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.’ But the sense of dread that permeates the film can be found in much of his songwriting - tragedy and despair never seem far behind Springsteen’s blue-collar characters. French director Louis Malle’s little-discussed 1980 film, entitled Atlantic City, also breathes life into Springsteen’s deserted winter boardwalks.

Another gothic fairytale that Springsteen cites as an influence is Charles Laughton’s singular masterpiece The Night of the Hunter - a morbid story of Deep South corruption, featuring a wicked preacher who preys on two orphaned children. The clammy, otherworldly tone of his record Nebraska borrows much from the film’s mood. 

Sean Penn based his film The Indian Runner on Springsteen's Highway Patrolman.

If Darkness on the Edge of Town is Springsteen's film noir, Born to Run is his road movie.

The lo-fi 1982 album served as further inspiration to actor Sean Penn, who based his directorial debut around the song Highway Patrolman. In it, Springsteen tells the story of a sheriff with a trouble-making brother who ‘just ain’t no good’. The protagonist struggles to reconcile his love and loyalty for his brother with his job, and Springsteen’s plaintive tone makes the pain of the dilemma audible. Penn’s 1991 film, The Indian Runner, is remarkably faithful to the song’s storytelling, featuring Viggo Mortensen as the criminal sibling Frankie.

Whether he’s describing factory men heading to work on interminably cold Jersey mornings or the human detritus of seaside towns in the summertime, The Boss has the ability to sing habitable worlds into existence. That’s what gives him such a marked relationship to American movies; his music is intrinsically cinematic. 

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