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'Letter to You' review: A very special Bruce Springsteen documentary

Bruce Springsteen in

Bruce Springsteen in "Bruce Springsteen's Letter to You," on Apple TV+. Credit: Apple TV+

DOCUMENTARY "Bruce Springsteen's Letter to You"

WHERE Streaming on Apple TV+

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Bruce Springsteen gathers the E Street Band at his New Jersey home over the course of four days in November 2019, where they record the new album "Letter to You," one of the very best in a nearly five-decade run at the pinnacle of rock stardom.

This documentary depicts the recording sessions through the precise and probing eye of Springsteen's longtime collaborator Thom Zimny, the filmmaker who both captured "Springsteen on Broadway" for Netflix and co-directed last year's film of the "Western Stars" album. "Letter to You," the film, is streaming on Apple TV+.

MY SAY For much of the 2007 "Magic" tour, Springsteen posed a question to his audience: "Is there anybody alive out there?"

In the most searing moment of "Letter to You," arriving during a year that has seen so much unfathomable loss, Springsteen answers his own question.

"I'm alive, I can feel the blood shiver in my bones," he and his bandmates sing in the new track "Ghosts." "I'm alive and I'm out here on my own. I'm alive and I'm coming home."

It's an optimistic chorus, not the one you might expect out of a song predicated around memories of times gone by and the people who once stood among us but no longer do.

And yet it encapsulates the spirit of this album, which engages as directly with the inexorable passage of time and the loss that comes with it as anything Springsteen has written, but stands out most as a tribute to the friendship that has provided the foundation of this band since its earliest days.

Zimny recognizes the fundamental character of the piece and the efficacy of the behind-the-scenes documentary format to capture it. But this movie is so much more than simply a glorified extra feature.

Utilizing the clarity and raw emotional quality of black-and-white cinematography, the filmmaker takes us inside the studio as Springsteen and the band get to work once more.

Springsteen's meditations on the themes of the album, often set to period footage, are interspersed with discussions of notes and tempo and other particulars, as well as moments in which the Boss joins Steven Van Zandt, Patti Scialfa and the rest of this illustrious crew to take shots of alcohol, sit back and reflect on where they've been and where they're going.

But the true essence of what makes this band such a powerful force can be found in the way Zimny utilizes close-ups and exceptionally precise editing to capture the thrilling yet unspoken moments within these days of collaboration and creation.

One of the best examples of how a documentary like this can enhance our appreciation of even one of the most famous rock and roll bands of all times comes most of the way through the recording of "If I Was The Priest," one of three songs on the album that Springsteen wrote in the early 1970s and rearranged for the full band.

The tempo has slowed, the full-bodied sound reduced to Roy Bittan's piano, Charlie Giordano's keyboard and Nils Lofgren's light strumming.

And then, suddenly: silence. A shot of drummer Max Weinberg in quiet contemplation. A cut to Van Zandt in anticipation. A close-up on a drum roll, followed by Bittan's hands on the piano; the tempo increases and the rest of the band joins in to harmonize over the chorus.

It's joyful, it's magical and, yes, it's life affirming, too.

BOTTOM LINE "Letter to You" is the best Springsteen album in years and this documentary is every bit as special.

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