After the premiere of Oliver Stone’s new film Snowden, my twitter feed was slightly abuzz with the news that it featured an original Peter Gabriel song which explained the plot of the movie, in a bit too obvious of a way. Original soundtrack songs can be strange. If they just explain away the plot, they can soon feel dated and too specific to last. But if they speak more broadly to the movie’s larger themes, they can last in eternity on their own. We all immediately think of Dirty Dancing when we hear “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life,” but it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the song detached from the film experience.
Recently I saw Bruce Springsteen live at a record setting Philadelphia concert, and with it being his birthday on September 23rd, I thought I would pay tribute to an artist who has done soundtrack work with more consistent greatness than just about anyone.
Of course, Bruce’s songs get used perfectly in many films. Here I will be focusing on five songs that Springsteen wrote specifically for the film in which they’re featured, all made in the 1990’s, a deceptively fertile creative period for him. It was a different time for him- his life support, The E Street Band were on indefinite hiatus. He began having children with his wife and bandmate Patti Scialfa. He moved to Los Angeles for a little bit. He released solo albums, some great, some forgettable. When he came back to front The E Street Band for their 1999 reunion tour, he was older and wiser- more like the aging boomer icon we know today. These songs represent, to some degree, what must have happened in between.
“The Streets Of Philadelphia”- Philadelphia (1993, dir. Jonathan Demme)
It’s hard to think of a more deeply empathetic songwriter than Springsteen. His songs often share traits with the art of cinema- stories are told from a second person narrative, there are characters, dialogue, actions and consequences. His fans know about his characters like they know about characters from their favorite films. We wonder about where Bobby Jean might have run off to, or how Rosalita is doing with that oppressive dad of hers.
Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) shares a lot in common with a classic Springsteenian character. He’s a man fighting the system and demanding to be treated just like everyone else- a gay lawyer fired when his employers found out that he was HIV-positive. For the song that plays over the opening credits, Springsteen puts himself not just in Andrew’s shoes, but in the shoes of any American down on their luck and abandoned by a system that was supposed to protect them. The references to HIV are specific- “I was bruised and battered I couldn’t tell what I felt, I was/ Unrecognizable to myself” but also universally relatable to anyone struggling with an illness, physical, mental or otherwise. Making use of the musical technologies of the time (as he always had), this song leans heavily on a drum machine and electronic keyboards. It feels like Springsteen, but it had him taking risks in sound and narrative too. To me, it remains one of his greatest all time songs, or at least one of the ones I have the deepest emotional response to.
“Missing”- The Crossing Guard (1995, dir. Sean Penn)
Like in “Streets Of Philadelphia,” this song for Sean Penn’s second feature film plays over the opening credits…and like that song, it has Bruce taking sonic risks, exploring sounds we could (very) loosely describe as hip-hop influenced. Starting out with a go-go beat, a lonely keyboard melody comes in sounding almost like a mistake. Layers get added and then Springsteen comes in. “Woke up this morning, a chill in the air/Went into the kitchen/My cigarettes were lying there.” It sounds like the opening scene of a movie, as the viewer is given a seemingly normal scenario and tries to figure out what the catch is going to be.
The Crossing Guard is about a father (Jack Nicholson) refusing to cope with the death of his daughter at the hands of a drunk driver. Instead, he resorts to plotting the murder of that driver. This song feels more specifically tied to the film than others on this list. Fortunately, it works like gangbusters over those opening credits, portraying Nicholson’s character as a ghost of himself completely lost among a sea of anonymous souls on a crowded Los Angeles street; getting at the film’s themes of seemingly irreversible spiritual devastation. It’s the kind of song that really shouldn’t work, but it does because it’s put to perfect use.
“Dead Man Walkin'”- Dead Man Walking (1995, dir. Tim Robbins)
Working once again with Sean Penn, this song feels more like it inspired the movie, rather than the other way around (which wouldn’t be the first time someone has done that, as Penn himself did with his excellent directorial debut The Indian Runner). Written from the perspective of Matthew Poncelet (Penn), a death row inmate awaiting execution, the song comes just before the end credits and offers the emotional resolution to a film without one. It’s the story of a man who once had hopes and dreams, but gave them away for his own demons and bad decisions. “Once I had a job, I had a girl/But between our dreams and actions lies this world,” in a line that essentially quotes Born In The U.S.A. deep cut “Downbound Train.” He’s a man haunted by his past and hoping for a better life in the next one. Out of all these characters, Poncelet may be the most Springsteenian of them all.
“Secret Garden”- Jerry Maguire (1996, dir. Cameron Crowe)
A Cameron Crowe film’s soundtrack plays like a great mixtape you get from your cool baby boomer uncle. This one is no different, with subtle classics from the likes of Neil Young, The Who, and this one. Technically written as a single before the movie ever came out, it jumped to the top of the charts after the film’s release, where it plays over a scene preceding Jerry’s (Tom Cruise) first date with Dorothy (Renee Zellweger). It features Springsteen’s signature 90’s musical cues; soft synthesizer, piano, light drums. It’s a gorgeous song, with lyrics appropriately reflective of Jerry’s fear of emotional intimacy (what the film is really about), something Bruce himself explored deeply on his underrated masterpiece Tunnel Of Love.
“Lift Me Up” Limbo (1999, dir. John Sayles)
John Sayles wrote and directed this strange little film that few people saw and even fewer remember. David Straitharn, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Kris Kristofferson star in this survival tale about a few down on their luck people living in Alaska who have to go into hiding when they witness something they shouldn’t have. Typically great performances, naturalistic dialogue, and slower than slow pacing make this fully in line with other Sayles other material, until it delivers one of the more unsatisfying endings I can recall in a film. It’s too bad, because that’s when this hidden gem from Springsteen kicks in. Once again employing spare instrumentation, his keyboards and light drums, he’s also singing for the first (and only?) time in complete falsetto. I can think of few other of his songs where he has sounded more vulnerable.
Perhaps it loosely relates to the film’s themes of fear of the unknown, but in feeling and sound, it feels totally divorced from the rest of the movie. That’s not really the song’s fault- it’s just a song that deserved better than the movie it was written for. Fortunately it was used to significantly better effect in David Simon’s (The Wire, Treme) 2015 miniseries masterpiece Show Me A Hero, soundtracking the final montage. It was a song in search of a piece of art that deserved it- fortunately it found its home.