How a Burt Lancaster film would inspire one of Bruce Springsteen’s biggest hits
Bruce Springsteen is one of the most prolific creatives in the entire music industry and his innate storytelling ability is up there with the very best of them. His way with words is simply breathtaking and the methods in which he can induce the listener into becoming invested within his world has earned him the deserved title of ‘The Boss’. The stories that Springsteen conducts with his music, however, don’t always materialise from thin air and one of his most beloved songs was born from the cinematic inspiration of Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon.
The film in question, one which would inspire Springsteen to create one of his greatest moments of artistic genius, is 1980 effort Atlantic City, a romantic crime movie directed by Louis Malle. The locality sparked something within Springsteen—with The Boss being a New Jersey native—and characters that were portrayed in the film hit home with him. He’d seen people he knew fall into the same tricky predicaments that are depicted in Atlantic City and felt compelled to write a song which not only shared the same title as the film, but also features a large crossover of imagery.
The plot sees follows the story of protagonist Sally Matthews who is played by Susan Sarandon. She leaves her Canadian home to relocate to Atlantic City in a bid to follow her dreams to work in the New Jersey gambling industry. Things weren’t straightforward for her, however, with her criminal husband—played by Robert Joy—hot on her trail, there was nothing that she could do to escape trouble. Her knight in shining armour comes from an unlikely source, Burt Lancaster, who plays her saviour Lou Pascal who is an old small-time mobster. What Pascal can let Sally achieve in her life seems great on the surface as she finally gets a taste of her dreams but soon enough both their lives end up in danger.
The film was met with huge critical acclaim and was nominated for the Big Five Academy Awards which were for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (for Lancaster), Best Actress (for Sarandon), and also a nod for Best Original Screenplay.
Springsteen’s 1982 song, which features on Nebraska, tells a different tale, however, but it still revolves around Atlantic City being a place of dreams and the dangers. The inspiration, living in a city that is riddled with the type crime which is impossible to shy away from, sees the song depict a young couple’s escape to ‘The World’s Playground’ before wrestling with the inevitability of death.
The powerful track evokes the same feeling of fear and uncertainty due to the lawless nature of the city, one which is aided by the lapsed gambling laws during its formative years in Atlantic City—an aspect which attracted the very worst people who promised to resurrect the area. The lyric, “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact, but maybe everything that dies someday comes back,” is one of Springsteen’s most famous and is pure poetry which would never have been born in this form it wasn’t for the film offering him that much-needed shot of inspiration.