Tougher Than the Rest: Is There an Actor Out There Who Could Star in The Bruce Springsteen Story?

Bruce Light

I finally got a chance to read David Remnick's revealing profile of Bruce Springsteen in the current issue of The New Yorker, and it revived a debate I've been having with myself for a long, long time: Could Hollywood do justice to a Springsteen biopic?

Full disclosure: I am a massive fan. My musical tastes are quite broad, but Springsteen has anchored the soundtrack of my life since high school. Forced to choose a favorite album, Darkness on the Edge of Town would be my probable pick. And the only concert tour I missed since The River was the one mounted in conjunction with The Seeger Sessions.
I became convinced that Springsteen's life should be a movie way back in 1980, just a few weeks before The River was released. I had yet to see Bruce live when I bought a ticket to in early September to see a concert documentary that had just been released called No Nukes because I'd read that he was in it.

Springsteen doesn't show up until well into the film — which was directed by Danny Goldberg, the music impresario who would become Nirvana and Sonic Youth's manager — but I won't soon forget that within seconds of his appearance on camera, I was rubbing away gooseflesh. Part of my reaction clearly had to do with my fan worship and with the fact that I was sitting virtually alone in the King's Court theater in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, PA watching my rock hero on a gigantic screen.

But, watching a clip of the performance, which I've posted below, those chills still come back. With his hair combed back into a rockabilly pompadour, Springsteen is part Elvis, part James Dean. His performance is charged with dramatic tension. When you first see him on the stage of Madison Square Garden, he is blinking furiously — my guess is from the klieg lights, his nerves, or both — but, if he is anxious, it does not mar his stunning performance of "The River." Performances of "Thunder Road" and Maurice Williams "Stay" with Jackson Browne follow and they are just as compelling.
By the time I saw No Nukes, I was already well-versed in Springsteen's rough early life, his clashes with his father and his musical evolution (thanks to a large bootleg collection and my consumption of any reading material I could find). After seeing Bruce's Technicolor performance,  I emerged from the theater convinced that his life should be a movie.

The New Yorker profile resurrected that notion. Its revelations about Bruce's battle with depression, the connection between his art and his conflict-ridden family life, and how his transcendant four-hour live performances were once driven by "Pure fear and self-loathing and self-hatred" as he told Remnick, would make great material for a film that took an honest look at the life of one of rock's true greats.

I know who should direct it, too: Martin Scorsese. The story that Remnick told in The New Yorker read to me like a contemporary version of the filmmaker's fascinating (albeit  ultimately disappointing) New York, New York   Both are tales of uncompromising artists who struggle to have lives outside their art. Just substitute Springsteen's "New York City Serenade" for the title Kander and Ebb song of Scorsese's picture.

The Casino director would also do a great job of translating Springsteen's key relationships to the screen: his manager Jon Landau,  and his wife Patti Scialfa, who, in addition to being the mother of his children, is a member of  the E Street Band.

More importantly, there is no director better at capturing the excitement the passion and grittiness of rock 'n' roll. Scorsese's documentary about the last days of The Band, The Last Waltz is the finest movie there is on the subject.

The rub is this:  I don't think there's an actor out there who could do Springsteen better than Springsteen. When I first saw No Nukes, I thought that Al Pacino would have been a good choice to play the adult Bruce, but that's clearly not feasible. And after seeing Vincent Gallo's Buffalo 66 and seeing him perform in concert, I thought that he would be an interesting choice.  Then again, the equally uncompromising Gallo would probably not be interested in playing such a popular character.

In some ways, I think that playing Springsteen would be much more difficult than playing Bob Dylan. The latter has always cultivated a shape-shifting aura of mystery, and a steadfast aloofness from his fans, that is an easier clay for actors to use. (The title of Todd Haynes' Dylan film I'm Not There said it well.)  Springsteen has taken a much harder, and I think, more original route: that of the straightforward, earnest — and isolated — rocker who hasn't given up on connecting with his fans. "You empower them a little bit, they empower you," he told Remnick.

I've gone back and forth on this one for years, but after looking at that performance of "The River" one more time, and seeing Springsteen on his most recent Wrecking Ball tour, I'm increasingly of the mind that he is sui generis and that no amount of Hollywood magic-making could come close to imitating him on the big screen.

What do you think? Is there any actor that you could see playing Bruce? Write him down in the comments section. Better yet, cast the whole E Street Band.


  • John K. says:

    I've had the same thought for years -- and agree on Scorsese as the director. Often I've thought about who could possibly play Bruce. Can't believe I'll admit this -- but I think Rob Morrow has a look at times that has reminded me of Bruce. I remember watching him in Northern Exposure in the early 90's and thinking that. Then last year started watching reruns of Numbers -- and saw it again. Google him, and look at the images, see what you think. Or watch Numbers, a show in which he showed more grit and toughness than I I had seen before. I'm a "massive fan" as well -- going back to 1975, seeing Bruce play for the first time in a small venue in Akron, Ohio -- before BTR came out. Enjoyed your article!

    • Frank DiGiacomo says:

      I think you're onto something with Morrow. He definitely looks like him, but his acting is a little emo for Bruce, no?

      • John K. says:

        I can see why you would say that Frank. I probably would have completely agreed before seeing a bit of a different side of him in Numbers.

  • Mr. Morden says:

    Ben Stiller! He's already done a parody of him on his old sketch show, and after all these years I think he now has the acting chops to pull it off.

    • Frank DiGiacomo says:

      Stiller's Springsteen imitation on 'The Ben Stiller Show' was really funny. I could also see a comedy film that would poke fun at Springsteen's earnestness. Bruce would probably be down with that. (His work with Jimmy Fallon shows he's got a sense of humor.) He could make a cameo as a roadie.

  • Innocent bystander says:

    Clearly, this is the best person for the job:

  • marc says:

    John Cusack

  • whoneedslight says:

    Brian Atene

    • Frank DiGiacomo says:

      Ha! Actually, with the right hairpiece, Aaron Paul from 'Breaking Bad' could be a contender. He could also probably play Nils Lofgren.

  • law says:

    For an interesting view on Springsteen's 1977-78 Darkness period, check out the book The Light in Darkness. Amazing stories and photographs from what many consider Springsteen's best and most mature album

  • Jery says:

    Matt Dillion

  • mugwort says:

    I think there is no actor who can look completely like Bruce Springsteen. Reason is this. Looks to me Springsteen face includes the genetic dominant "Hapsburg lip" That is his lower lip is overdeveloped. In other words in profile it noticably juts out. Can't see how one could reproduce this with makeup. Hapsburg lip named after the German Hapsburg family with roots as far as the 14th century. I suppose if I was forced to choose I'd pick Ben Stiller since otherwise , resemblance to the great singer, songwriter, campaigner of great liberal causes.

  • Byron Sauer says:

    Hands down, pound for pound; John Cusack

  • Chris marz says:

    Bruce Willis? With enough makeup?

  • Chris marz says:

    Who could play Clarence? Eddie Murphy? Don Cheedle?

    • Frank DiGiacomo says:

      I think Ving Rhames would make a great Clarence. He's physically imposing. Voice works. He could definitely play the Big Man.

  • eileen says:

    Ryan Gosling acting+++ muscian++

  • judy says:

    I suppose if I was forced to choose I'd pick Ben Stiller since otherwise , resemblance to the great singer, songwriter, campaigner of great liberal causes.It is a known fact that women are attracted to powerful men. In general, most women will expect their men to be mature and provide financial stability along with long-term security. Vise versa, most men would expect their women to be beautiful and grace. ~ blackwhiteplanet _℃om ~~~~~ is for thousands of upscale men and beautiful women, who understand that ambition, success, and glamour are key elements of attraction. It's worth a try!

  • whoneedslight says:

    Mark Ruffalo?

  • The Cantankerist says:

    I realise this is somewhat out of, um, wrong field, but Affleck has quite a bit of Springsteen about the face. I can't imagine him sitting well in the role, but there's various concert footage where he looks a fair bit like him. Also, using the Fantasy Wayback Casting Machine, the younger Gere has a little bit of it going on too.

    • Frank DiGiacomo says:

      Yeah, Gere could have worked. Affleck is interesting, but he can be laid back on the screen. Mark Ruffalo is also an intriguing choice, but his speaking voice wouldn't carry the day.

  • Teach says:

    Sean Penn

  • zamber says:

    I think if you're doing a Bruce movie you gotta stick to his early years with his relationship with his father and rise to fame. And I honestly believe that Joseph Gordon-Levitt would be a perfect Bruce.

    He's got the charm, the acting ability, the look (if you search JGL and guitar in google ull find a pic that can easily be mistaken with Bruce), and he has the musical ability (search JGL and R Kelly remix on YouTube).

    I'd stay away from casting an older Bruce and would rather show how the boss became the boss. No cheesy old Bruce thinking back on his life (like all other biopics). Just a straight up insight into the rise of a Rock n Roll icon, and what it took to get there.

    Scorsese is a great choice.

    Maybe Emma Stone as Patti

    I'll try and figure out my thoughts for the rest of E Street

  • Bret says:

    Though there's no one that's a clear fit, I think Edward Burns could portray a Darkness to Nebraska era Springsteen quite well. Admittedly, he's been in some pretty terrible films, but, for me, a few of his performances demonstrate that walking the line between anger and depression towards a distant notion of hope that characterizes Bruce and his music. That...and he kind of looks like a younger Bruce.

  • Coral says:

    I think everybody's choices have some merit. But how about James Franco?

  • crashg says:

    even though he's a bit shite, always thought Ben Affleck would make a decent go of it; you can't have lightweight gits like stiller, franco or gosling.....Affleck from good will hunting days

    • says:

      that is a video of the river being played live. Ben Affleck looks so similar and even sounds similar in his voice. I think Ben would do a great job. He played very well in argo.

  • Bruno FERNANDEZ says:

    Why nobody thinks of... Matthew Broderick ??? Have a look at his pictures and you'll see he could do a more than acceptable Bruce. ;-)

  • randy11kat says:

    A few random comments: Bruce Fans are going to know more about Bruce than any movie can do justice to. Case in point 1.) I am a big fan of the book, Atlas Shrugged. But, both movies haven't come close to what the book conveys. 2.) I am a big fan of Steve Jobs, having read, The Second Coming of SJ & the Walter Isaacson book. I went to see Jobs. Ashton Kutcher did a pretty good job portraying Steve, but the story was weak and continuity lacking. I shutter to think what Steve would have thought of the movie.

    You either get Bruce or you don't. Those who don't will have very little desire to see a Springsteen biopic. Those who get Bruce will most likely be disappointed. Would Bruce be consulted on such a movie? Would he be happy with such a movie? "They're Gonna Make A TV Movie Out of Me."

    I did learn a new word from your article, sui generis. When they made Bruce, "they broke the mold."

  • ABIndy says:

    How about Michael Pare...oh, nevermind. Seriously why would you want to defile someone like Springsteen by letting the movie industry at him- I'm a fan of his( have been since the seventies) who is obsessed with film and I would avoid seeing a Boss Biopic like the plague. Mainstream hollywood is virtually incapable of making great films and that's the kind of film Bruce would be owed. Who could play him? Big problem- Bruce is actually a man- you know an adult man- that rules out 90 % of the actors that have the power to get this kind of thing done.

  • steve says:

    Hugh Jackman

  • jsmithy644 says:

    Reblogged this on Reviewing the past, present and future of The Silver Screen and commented:
    It's Bruce 'The Boss' Springsteen's birthday! Horray! The question remains as to who would play the All- American hero in a film, here's a few ideas from Movieline.

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