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How Bruce Springsteen inspired Sean Penn’s directorial debut


There has always been something very cinematic about the songwriting of Bruce Springsteen. His lyrics are eternally crammed with imagery, narrative and often a message for those who care to hear it. Perhaps most importantly from a cinematic point of view, however, is that he brilliantly colours gritty realism with the gloss of visceral art. 

This, in part, is owing to the abiding influences that first inspired him. As Springsteen recalled in his autobiography: “Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home were not only great records, but they were the first time I can remember being exposed to a truthful vision of the place I lived.”

As he continues to poetically dissect Dylan’s work, he adds: “The darkness and light were all there, the veil of illusion and deception ripped aside. He put his boot on the stultifying politeness and daily routine that covered corruption and decay.”

Unearthing this dark underbelly that often went uncommented, is something that Springsteen has also looked to do. However, much like his forebearers, he takes a timeless novelistic approach which both casts his work with a sense of timelessness and gives it an allegorical weight that goes far beyond simply venting your spleen at society. 

In fact, his album Nebraska, almost plays out like a dark movie itself, which is perhaps why Sean Penn opted to step behind the camera to transpose ‘Highway Patrolman’ into the morose epic The Indian Runner. Both the film and the tale of the record are snapshots of America’s present with tendrils that run into the past documenting a history of violence like a murder ballad brought forward into the future. 

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For the feature, Viggo Mortensen starred in the lead role of Frank Roberts, whilst Patricia Arquette, Dennis Hopper, Charles Bronson, Sandy Dennis and Benicio del Toro all join him in the cast. The film follows the tale of a troubled Vietnam vet returning to his small-town home where his brother (David Morse), the local sheriff, rules like a feudal lord. This is the story that Springsteen tells in his grovel road tones in the folk epic ‘Highway Patrolman’. 

As it happens, in 1982, Sean Penn was dating ‘The Boss’’ sister, the photographer Pamela Springsteen. Obsessed with the song, Penn told the ‘Born to Run’ singer, “I’m going to make a movie out of ‘Highway Patrolmen’.” The ever-watchful Springsteen then apparently laughed it off with condescension and told that cocky star, “Ok, Sean.” Seeing as though this exchange itself seemed like something from the movie, its fate was almost sealed then and there to be made.

In the end, the film might transpose the tale of ‘Highway Patrolmen’ but both the track and the movie are summed up by the definitive line from the album’s title track, with its own roots in the real-world violence of America as the Charles Starkweather’s justification for a string of murders: “There’s just a meanness in this world.”