Road Trip: 40 Years of the Boss
Music Video Distributors // Unrated // $26.95 // May 5, 2009
Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted May 13, 2009
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The Movie:
Here's a brilliant idea for you aspiring documentarians--why not make a documentary on Bruce Springsteen that not only doesn't feature its title subject in any interview segments, but which includes absolutely none of his music? What's that you say? That's not a brilliant idea? Well, don't come complaining to me, take your beefs right to the makers of at least the first half of this two-fer which, if you've never heard of Bruce Springsteen, will at least give you the basics on his life and career, while (no doubt due to licensing issues) keeping you from anything resembling his actual music and live performances. If the second documentary in this set at least includes snippets of actual Springsteen music, it's really none the better for it, dependant, as the first documentary is, largely on second and third hand reminiscences by hangers on to the Springsteen entourage who have little if any marked insights into The Boss.

I'm old enough to remember quite clearly the rather incredible occurrence of seeing Bruce Springsteen on the covers of both Time and Newsweek the same week back in the 1970s, after he had been proclaimed as the "future of rock and roll." Springsteen burst on the music scene like a supernova with his third album, "Born to Run," after having released two critically acclaimed but poor selling efforts. The fact is, as at least both of these documentaries make clear, Springsteen had been attracting attention for years before even his first Columbia LP. Critics were singing his praises as he fronted a number of bands, notably Steel Mill, out of his home base of Asbury Park, New Jersey, but slowly working out to become a regional success.

Springsteen has always personified the working class hero, despite his putative ascension to post-Elvis rock kingship (I doubt we're ever going to see Bruce in a white spandex, rhinestone encrusted leisure suit, for example). Springsteen's down to earth honesty and growling voice speaks easily to the unwashed masses, so it's actually a little funny at times to have pseudo-intellectuals offering overly articulate ruminations on what exactly is the gist of Bruce's appeal. That said, there is a full critique and analysis of at least every early album, along with numerous music critics explaining why people have been drawn to Springsteen's music.

What's maddening about both of these pieces is that they're documentaries about a musician that contains none of his music (the second piece actually does, mostly from music videos and live performances, but it's so little as to be virtually nonexistent). Fans are going to be ripping their hair out as various songs are discussed, but never heard. For those who are already very familiar with Springsteen, this is a very thorough account of his career starting from his elementary school years, first guitar, first bands, and moving through the "Born in the USA" superstardom. There is little discussion of "Tunnel of Love" or beyond. Perhaps a blessing in disguise (but probably also maddening for both fans and casual listeners alike), there's virtually no mention of Springsteen's private life. As a Portlander, I can tell you it was front page news for weeks when Springsteen married Portland suburban girl Julianne Phillips, and it was even more of a headline-fest when it turned out The Boss was having an extramarital dalliance with Patti Scialfa, whom he ultimately married after divorcing Phillips. It's odd, if not actually disappointing (due to the basic ineptitude of the rest of these features), that no private life information is imparted.

You know you're probably in trouble going into these pieces when there's a disclaimer saying that what you're about to watch is not authorized by Bruce Springsteen and contains none of his original music. While the first item isn't necessarily a death knell (lots of excellent documentaries don't have the support, tacit or otherwise, of their subjects), the latter certainly is. It's like trying to do a documentary on Shakespeare without ever quoting anything he wrote. For those unfamiliar with The Boss (an appellation he evidently doesn't like, by the way), these are probably OK introductions, if only to whet the appetite for what really matters--the music. For fans, these are laughable time wasters and should be avoided at all costs.


Both of these ostensible documentaries originally aired on television, and they sport a very typical full frame 1.33:1 image, with OK colors and contrast and acceptable detail. Some archival pictures are grainy and stock footage is similarly less than spectacular. Just your standard, run of the mill television presentation--no more, no less.

The standard stereo soundtrack is similarly OK--it's mostly talking head segments, with bridging narration voiceover, and everyone can be heard quite clearly. If only they were saying something worth listening to, or (here's an idea!) if there were actual Springsteen music there might be more to enjoy here.

There is one nominally useful extra here, an interactive discography containing some information on even bootlegs. There are also extended interviews on Disc 2 and a Springsteen quiz.

Final Thoughts:
I've lamented some of the patently lame Beatles documentaries that have come my way, but I have to say these two Springsteen opuses probably top those. If you've been living in a cave for the past 40 years and have never heard of the man, you'll at least get a passable introduction here, if virtually none of his actual music. Otherwise, Skip It.

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