Ever since he rocketed out of Jersey in the 1970s, the music of Bruce Springsteen has always felt like it belonged in movies. More than that, many of Springsteen’s songs have felt like movies themselves: they’ve often told dramatic, larger-than-life tales about people experiencing internal crisis and dramatic desires. Like the best filmmakers, The Boss has always poured 110% into all of his craft. It’s no surprise that many directors and movies, like this week’s Blinded by the Light, have been so inspired by the man’s work. The emotions and feelings in his music strike us like the best movies do. Movies are about the human experience and what American artist does a better job at expressing that experience than Springsteen? No one, that’s who. Fight me.
But which of his songs feel the most cinematic? Which ones tell the best stories, give us the best characters, delve into our emotions like the classics of cinema? There are so, so many to choose from and I’ve definitely missed a few gems but below is a list of some of the Springsteen songs that feel like mini-movies. They all deserve a standing ovation.
“Sherry darling”/“ain’t good enough for you”
These two go together because they basically tell the same story: a lovelorn young man vents about his current relationship situation and, of course, he isn’t to blame. Instead, Springsteen’s character blames his lack of romantic reciprocation on his crush’s annoying mother (“Sherry Darling”) or her wishy-washy ways and impossibly high standards (“Ain’t Good Enough for You”). Both songs sound alike, they’re raucous big-band jams with the whole crew singing along. It sounds like a group of friends drinking at a bar and drowning their misery in drink. They’re both large songs and tell an age-old, relatable story. They’re bitter, cynical love stories that feel like the musical equivalent of biting romantic comedies.
“Livin’ in the future”
From his Magic album, “Livin’ in the Future” is about a broken heart or a broken political system, it’s hard to tell. While it’s a peppy-sounding song, it contains some unsettling imagery that would fit in a dark, almost-surreal film. Springsteen sings of the “taste of blood on your tongue” and “gunpowder” skies and the earth basically falling apart. The final verse contains this disturbing line: “Tell me is that rollin' thunder/Or just the sinkin' sound/Of somethin' righteous goin' under.” If that isn’t cinematic, I don’t know what is. Leave it to Springsteen to make a song that is either about a romance fizzling or the Bush administration.
Inarguably one of the best songs ever written, “Backstreets” is the story of our protagonist and his lost love, known simply as Terry. We don’t know much about their relationship (this song has long been perceived as the tale of two closeted gay lovers) but we know that it’s over and Terry has moved on, leaving our hero alone and broken-hearted. Springsteen speaks in poetry throughout all of “Backstreets”, giving us glimpses of Jersey in the 1970s. Though he doesn’t get too in-depth (what good poetry does?) he no less paints a picture of a chaotic, romanticized version of the east coast, full of gangs, abandoned beach houses, slow-dancing lovers and, of course, cars.
Like much of Springsteen’s music, this is a sad, sad song, full of betrayal, despair and longing. It’s definitely one of his most cinematic tracks, telling a story full of ample drama with a lead character you ache for even though you hardly know him. You feel like you’ve been through something akin to a two-hour film when “Backstreets” concludes. And then there’s Springsteen’s voice, which is musical nirvana and unlike anything else. It’s sometimes hard to understand his lyrics in “Backstreets” but it’s never hard to understand his emotions. Obviously “Backstreets” is an auditory experience but it really feels like you’re watching it before your very eyes.
“Highway 29” tells the story of a man falling for a woman who sets off something dangerous inside of him. The tale ends up being a Bonnie and Clyde-like one, with the two lovers robbing a bank and heading south for safety. Springsteen refuses to give too many details but, like any good movie, he gives enough details to tell a whole story. You picture the narrator vividly, you understand the type of guy he is. Hopefully you’re not LIKE him but you definitely get a fully painted picture of him. The song, short as it is, is full of vivid imagery and emotion and one of the most vulnerable and honest lyrics in Springsteen history: “I told myself it was all something in her/But as we drove I knew it was something in me.” Like some of the best films, it ends with a truly ambiguous ending that is painfully bleak. Before the song ends, you’ve been told a full story with lived-in characters, high stakes and human emotions. Just like an amazing film.
“The Promised Land”
If you had to sum up Springsteen’s music effectively you would say that it’s generally the tales of average, middle-class people striving for something just out of reach. These are characters often dying to break free of the shackles that bind them to dead-end jobs, small towns, depression and lost love. “The Promised Land” does that better than nearly any other Springsteen song. Here we have a young, hot-rod racer who promises the girl he loves that he’s a man who will soon take charge and break away from the suffocating life that has kept him down.
The most cinematic aspect of “Promised Land” is the raw emotion. It’s an entire coming-of-age movie in just a few minutes, providing listeners with all the detail and character of some of the best dramas. And it’s sung by a storyteller who is leaving it ALL on the floor. Springsteen empties his soul into the song, in terms of his vocal styling and his lyrics. This is a song that refuses to be listened to (or played) quietly. It also contains one of Springsteen’s best lyrics:
“Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode
Explode and tear this whole town apart
Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart”
Powerful stuff, huh? But just reading the lyrics doesn’t do them justice: you’ve got to hear him sing them. It’s like plugging a classic film into your ears.