Bruce Springsteen’s 1980 album The River is one of his strongest albums, in both content and composition, and helped shaped the music of the ’80s. “The Ties that Bind,” directed by Thom Zimmy, tells the story of this album through interview footage with Springsteen, old photographs and old footage from his recordings. The uncluttered documentary is only an hour long, and it doesn’t waste a single minute. Zimmy lets Springsteen tell his own story for the majority of the time, sitting in a kitchen or a backyard, holding his guitar while he speaks. The grainy concert footage from the ’80s is just as riveting as the current high definition footage, and Zimmy lets the former bleed into the latter, the voices of Springsteen past and present blending together.
Though we never hear Zimmy’s voice asking Springsteen questions, we can tell he’s answering them. Springsteen begins by talking about living in a country house in New Jersey, and the land and the river that became the setting for much of the music that would find its way onto the double album. He talks about wanting to write music for people his age, as did his band members, to whom he refers as a group of “lost boys.” The affection Springsteen holds for his old band is obvious; he has only the most positive memories of them. He describes how much work it was to record an album — they would all learn the basic tracks and then the “guys would add their flourishes.”
While musing, Springsteen absentmindedly picks the guitar strings, not looking at them. He’s the kind of seasoned performer and talented musician that wields an instrument like it’s an extension of his body. He talks quietly, almost as if he’s thinking out loud.
By letting the camera roll while Springsteen figures out how to talk about the sentiments behind the music, Zimmy lets Springsteen’s dedication to creating brilliant music shine through. At one point while talking about the album, he says he came back from the studio knowing he needed to work on it more because it didn’t “have all the colors and feelings” that he wanted. He talks about the “characters” of certain songs, and inhabiting those characters, and then trying to “get your listeners to walk in those shoes for a while.”
Several times throughout the film, Springsteen realizes that he can’t quite explain some songs or the sentiments behind them without playing them, so he shifts the guitar slightly and begins to sing — “Point Blank,” “Hungry Heart” (a hit single), “Independence Day” and, of course, the eponymous “The River.” These mini impromptu performances are some of the most compelling parts of the documentary — sometimes music just speaks for itself.
He talks about how some of his songs were “emotionally autobiographical,” like “Independence Day” — that wistful song in particular was “quite without bitterness” and about the “exhilaration of being cut free.”
The concert footage clips are fun to watch — mostly because Springsteen himself is having so much fun onstage — making us wish there was more. There is footage of a young and passionate Springsteen, lips close to the microphone, belting some lines of “The River,” which are some of the most evocative lyrics to come out of the album: “Then I got Mary pregnant / and man, that was all she wrote / And for my 19th birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat / We went down to the courthouse / and the judge put it all to rest / No wedding day smiles no walk down the aisle / No flowers no wedding dress / That night we went down to the river / and into the river we’d dive / Oh down to the river we did ride … ”
There’s no huge conflict to explore or dissect in this story — no band drama, no studio scams or selling out, no Yoko Ono-esque theatrics or shocking media exposés. There is only the struggle that comes with trying to make meaningful music, and to strike the balance between being present and moving forward in your life — maybe settling down, who knows — and writing music.
The documentary ends with Springsteen playing and singing “The Ties that Bind,” which flows into the audio of him singing it in concert years ago while the credits roll. It’s a simple, quiet film with an inspirational subject reflecting on one of the best albums of the ’80s. After it ends, you’re left feeling like there’s so much more we could have been shown. But Zimmy and Springsteen seem to have come to an unspoken conclusion in the making of this film — the best thing to do, when talking about music, is let the music tell its own stories.