In their conversation Sunday night at a private Netflix event honoring “Springsteen on Broadway,” Bruce Springsteen and Martin Scorsese spent close to a third of the 45-minute chat discussing their mutual roots in east coast Catholicism and how they’ve both come to terms with a kind of faith. “I think as you get older, what you grow comfortable with is that faith is faith,” Springsteen said. “It’s about all of the mysteries and the answers that you’re never gonna come up with. And I think trying to build it around these concrete answers is vain and humanistic. But if you let it be, that’s where you find a little bit of peace in it. That’s what I’ve found, anyway.”
But what about mysteries that there might be concrete, knowable answers to in this lifetime? Like, say, whether or not Robert DeNiro copped his “Are you talkin’ to me?” line from Bruce Springsteen?
Still unknowable, as it turns out. But it did at least come up as the very first topic of conversation as the two met up in front of an audience a few hundred at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood — even though only serious Springsteen buffs knew exactly what they were talking about. The singer reminded the director at the outset that he first met Scorsese and DeNiro at a “Born to Run”-era Roxy show in 1975, before the filmmaker and actor again came out to see a concert at the Bottom Line in New York later that year. Springsteen is known, via bootlegs, to have used the line “Are you talkin’ to me?” on stage during his “Quarter to Three” rap at the Bottom Line shows — which occurred shortly after “Taxi Driver” wrapped up filming. But did he say it earlier at the Roxy, too, and influence one of the most famous sentences in movie history?
“There still remains that great debate of where ‘Are you talkin’ to me?’ came from,” Scorsese said. “I tried reaching Bob now, but of course he’s about to land somewhere.”
“I believe it [the idea that DeNiro got it from Springsteen] is urban myth,” the singer said.
“No, I think it might be (true)!” Scorsese retorted. “You never know. Because we never knew where that came from.” (There’s also a theory that DeNiro subconsciously recalled very similarly worded dialogue in “Shane.”)
“All right,” Springsteen allowed, laughing. “I don’t want to know!”
It was at least crystal clear that some influence went the other way, with Springsteen and his creative team taking some cues for the Netflix version of “Springsteen on Broadway” — a filmed version of his long-running one-man show — from Scorsese’s 1970s concert film “The Last Waltz.” Although one had an all-star musical cast surrounding the Band and the other has all of one person, Patti Scialfa, briefly joining Springsteen, they took the same approach when it came to the importance of the live audience on screen. Which was: none.
“Thom (Zimny, the director) and Jon (Landau) were debating first of all what was going to be the role of the audience,” Springsteen said. “And Thom said, ‘There shouldn’t be any audience. We should just film it on stage.’ ‘Well, who’s going to laugh at my jokes? I’m going to tell a joke, and you’re not going to hear anything! That’s not gonna work out.’ So we ended up having kind of half an audience, and that tended to work out well… We didn’t want to telegraph to the viewer what you’re supposed to feel or if you’re supposed to laugh. So the audience isn’t seen until the very, very end of the film. It’s interesting, because you did that on ‘Last Waltz,’ which was unusual to do in 1976, because you were coming off ‘Woodstock’ [on which Scorsese served as an editor], where the audience was such a huge part, (like) ‘Monterey Pop.’ So how did you come about filming ‘Last Waltz’ without depending on going to the audience?
“’Last Waltz’ started as kind of an experiment in a way,” Scorsese answered. “Bottom line, I said, ‘If I do this, we have seen enough of the audience at Woodstock’ —I was there —and we have seen enough of the audience responding to Carlos Santana. It was very ice, but it was enough… What if we just stay on the stage? What’s it like to be part of the Band? How do they work together to create one thing? … Nice audience, everybody is very happy — great! I’m not interested. …. The key thing was being on stage with them. It always reminded me, after seeing them finish a song, it was like you’d just been through a round in a prizefight. … Eventually that led to the boxing scenes in ‘Raging Bull,’ from shooting the music (in ‘Last Waltz’) that way.”
Scorsese also said that his audience-less approach had been influenced by a film with a sizable cult following that was shot at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1959, “Jazz on a Summer’s Day.” “I’m not into jazz that much, but this thing in 35mm color… is amazing… This guy (director Bert Stern) locked that 35mm — and in ‘59 the cameras were big. So he got the angle, and he didn’t move! Even if you’re not a jazz fan, it’s a beauty… You hardly see the audience… That’s the key film. I’ve got to get a copy for you.”
Scorsese was particularly interested by the choice in “Springsteen on Broadway” to open the film right on Springsteen’s face, with the show seemingly already in progress. “It’s really interesting,” the filmmaker said, “because it begins and you expect ‘Here comes Bruce,’ or whatever — there’s going to be a shot of you coming. The conventional way is to have you coming into the building, see your people, maybe [show] interviews first. No, it cuts direct to a close-up.”
“Yeah, that was Jon Landau,” Springsteen explained. “That was his shot. Which I don’t know if he was influenced by the great Elvis ’68 comeback special, where the first thing you see is Elvis going” — he broke into a quick imitation — “’If you’re looking for trouble,’ and they shoot (tight on) Elvis’s face. Much better looking than my face! But still, it was the same idea.”
Springsteen repeatedly invoked the word “watchability,” as something he strived to achieve on Broadway and on film. “The artists that are interesting, when you think of Hank Williams or Elvis or Frank Sinatra or Bob Dylan — or Marty Scorsese — it’s: ‘What’s bothering that guy? Something’s bothering that guy!’ But that’s what keeps us watching. That’s why you can watch Bob DeNiro’s face on the screen for two hours — not just 15 minutes, but two hours: it never gives up its secrets. What iseating away at that person?”
But the singer admitted he was too self-aware of the watchability factor on the first of two nights they spent filming “Springsteen on Broadway” on stage last year.
“You’ve got to be ready to look into the camera, which is unforgiving and frightening,” he said. “We shot two nights, and the first night I was really uncomfortable, which was a little unusual. But I came out and I’m looking at the camera and I’m trying to do what I normally do, and I realize I’m doing the weirdest thing you can do on stage, which is think about what you’re doing. Don’t ever do that! Don’t get on stage and find yourself thinking about what you’re doing, because you’re f—ing it up. … And at the end of the night, I didn’t say anything to anybody, but I went home and thought, ‘I’ve got to up my game for tomorrow.’ And I came back the next day and found that I was more relaxed. … [If] you’re making your emotional and inner life available, the audience will watch you do that. Because you’re on a tightrope, and it’s a death-defying act. It remains watchable. That was our biggest concern, because there’s one old guy and an acoustic guitar, and that’s the show tonight, ladies and gentlemen!
Added Springsteen, “You’ve got to be in your story and recreating those experiences like they never happened before, and giving the audience access to them. And then … you’re a gateway to a larger experience that’s bigger than yourself and your audience, and something wonderful happens.”
“By the way,” Scorsese reminded the audience, “that’s every night.”
“Gotta do that every night!” agreed Springsteen.
The singer didn’t get into politics but did indicate that we have Barack Obama to thank if we enjoyed “Springsteen on Broadway.” “The whole thing came about as a bit of an accident,” he recalled. “President Obama the last couple of weeks he was in office asked me to come down and play the White House. So I said, I’m not gonna bring the whole band down. I had written the memoir and I said, ‘Maybe I’ll read from the book [“Born to Run,” his memoir] a little bit, and I’ll play a few songs.’ So then when I went to read from the book, I realized, no, reading from something is different from the way you speak. So I rewrote what I was going to say as a spoken word piece. And I went down and I played about 90 minutes of what became the Broadway show in the East Room. There was just some alchemy there that felt really right.”
Springsteen called the part of “Mean Streets” that is scored to “Be My Baby” “the greatest opening scene of all time — oh my God” and asked Scorsese about the music choices in his films. “It comes from my 78s and 45s, my old collection that I still have,” the director said. “In fact, in ‘Mean Streets,’ we used the old 45s with the scratches.” In most cases, Scorsese said, he has the song picks mapped out well in advance, but “in some cases we go in [afterward] and say, what year is it? I don’t want to use music as nostalgia. That’s nonsense. I mean, it’s okay, but… I also don’t want to use music that’s directly describing what’s happening in the scene. So you’ve got to go a little twisted, and you end up with Devo at times, and then you go back.”
They bonded over their share love for Catholic literary great Flannery O’Connor, with Springsteen saying that his 1982 album “Nebraska” “was very influenced by Flannery O’Connor stories, and her stories were always filled with the unknowability of God.” Scorsese seemed surprised that Springsteen had not read her collected letters, and urged Springsteen, “Oh, just a few pages a night, every few nights. … I have a quote here from [a letter]… She said, ‘You arrive at enough certainty to be able to make your way, but it is making it in darkness. Don’t expect faith to clear things up for you. It’s trust, not certainty.’”
“If you’re an artist,” responded Springsteen, “that darkness is always more interesting than the light. It’s nice when you let the light in at the end of something. But I was always interested in, what were the things that didn’t go right? I had a habit: I would drive back through my hometown, and I would do this over and over and over again. And I used to ask myself, why am I coming back here? And I still do. Seventy years old, I still do it. I don’t know if you’re going back to fix things, but there’s so much there that informed your work and your life that it still remains just a rich location. But I always wanted to base the heart of my work in the dark side of things and then find my way. Then you had to earn the light.”
Springsteen wasn’t kidding when he said he still drives back through his hometown. That’s evident in his closing monolog in “Springsteen on Broadway,” when he come back late at night and laments the cutting down of his favorite tree, then comes to spiritual terms with it. He reinforced the truth of those homecomings with an anecdote in Sunday’s discussion.
“The faith you had as a child was very fear-based,” he said. “My initial recollection of my experience in the church was: it was dark. Now, if I go back to my hometown church, it’s been painted entirely white. And it’s bright and it’s supposed to be happy, I guess.”
“Oh, no, no, that’s not good!” protested Scorsese.
“Occasionally I get drawn back to my church,” Springsteen continued. “I was at my church — I attended some stranger’s funeral about a month ago.” The audience laughed. “I was driving by and I saw the door was open, and I said, ‘I’ve got to go in. I’ve got to go back.’ And I went in and there was some nice man’s funeral going on, and I sat in the back. And,” he admitted, “it was completely bizarre.”
Neither participant was there to plug upcoming projects. Springsteen’s June release, “Western Stars,” never came up, nor did Scorsese’s Netflix documentary about Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue era, also set for June. The director only mentioned the other film he has coming up for Netflix later in the year, “The Irishman,” once, glancingly, in the context of Catholicism, saying that “it deals with the same thing” as his most celebrated films — “just this ultimate truth, loyalty and betrayal, and faith.”
But while “Western Skies” didn’t arise in the talk, Springsteen did reveal during the conversation that he recently wrote about an album’s worth of material that he plans to record with the E Street Band after the solo album comes out, to be followed by a tour. (See a separate story about that here.)
Following the discussion, Scorsese exited and Springsteen played attendees a two-song solo set, with “Dancing in the Dark” segueing into “Land of Hope and Dreams.” Setting up the former song, he said, “When things look dark, you should do as my mighty mom would insist. She was 93 yesterday. I went and I spent the afternoon with her. She’s nine years into Alzheimer’s. She can’t speak. But I put on Glenn Miller, and she still loves to dance. She dances to survive. So lace up your dancing shoes, get on the floor and get to work.”
He also offered the potential Emmy voters a variation on the self-explaining monolog that comes near the end of “Springsteen on Broadway.” “I wanted to be able to celebrate and honor my country’s beauty and poetry… and I wanted to be critical when I thought that that’s what events called for,” said the singer. “But more than anything else, I wanted to be just a good storyteller. I wanted to be able to tell my story well to you. That was my young promise to myself, and it was my young promise to you. From when I was a young man, I took my fun very seriously. And this is what I pursued as my service. And despite the fact that I’m here today begging complete strangers for their votes, I still believe in that as my service, and this is what I presented to you all these years as my long and noisy prayer — my magic trick.”