Bruce Springsteen documentary tonight: 'More than rich or famous, I wanted to be great'

There are two Bruce Springsteens in tonight’s don’t-miss HBO special The Promise: The Making of Darkness On The Edge of Town. There’s the Springsteen of the late 1970s, ambitious and anxious and eager to get on with his career in the wake of his then-recent ascent to super-stardom with Born To Run. Then there’s the Springsteen of 2010, ambitious and contemplative and willing to let you in on how much he thinks that young Springsteen succeeded in his goals.

The documentary, directed by Thom Zimny, makes extensive use of 1976-78 footage shot in back-and-white by Barry Rebo, which captures the painstakingly long recording sessions Springsteen and the E Street Band endured. If you’re a fan, you’ll love the watching the agony — the endless experiments to get the “right” drum sound; Springsteen poring over spiral notebooks into which he’d scrawled literally scores of lyrics and song ideas, as the band waits around listening to their hair drop out; the occasional flashes of temper from The Boss and his minions (Steve Van Zandt feels especially free to say when he thinks something “sucks”). Springsteen says now with a dry chuckle, “I didn’t have a life [back then], so everyone had to suffer with me,” and suffering is indeed what it frequently looks like. And of course, out of this emerged a great album as well as songs that became hits for others, most notably Patti Smith’s version of “Because The Night.” (Smith is interviewed here, and speaks with with her usual charm and frankness about how to her, the song was a love letter to the man she would marry, the late Fred “Sonic” Smith.)

Yes, it’s striking how much time the young Springsteen spent in the studio without a shirt on (cue screaming fans). But what’s much more impressive is his artistic purpose: The latter-day Springsteen, looking back, says, “More than rich, more than famous, I wanted to be great.” And Rebo’s ’70s footage bears him out, as Springsteen sought “a leaner, angrier sound” (punk rock was breathing down his neck) and, as comments from Springsteen and Landau attest, how seriously the singer-songwriter approached what could have been just a relatively fast, easy, hit-single-filled follow-up to Born To Run. Instead, Springsteen sought to make a “sonic movie,” the equivalent to the soulful, sere John Ford Western The Searchers.

Young viewers may even be perplexed by Landau’s mission statement that “the work of art is the album… That is the highest-developed thing in rock.” Landau was talking about two sides of vinyl intended to take the listener on a carefully sequenced journey. Today, in an era dominated by downloaded singles and a fractured marketplace, the unity Springsteen and Landau sought, in both the music and their mass audience, has all but vanished.

The Promise even has a secret hero: engineer Chuck Plotkin, who was brought in to mix the album and provide fresh ears and problem-solving to achieve the atmosphere Springsteen wanted to have hanging over Darkness. Plotkin’s descriptions of how the voice should emerge from the guitars, the balance he wanted to create, is enthralling.

In the context of those times, Springsteen was extricating himself from a lawsuit that pitted him against his former manager Mike Appel (with whom Springsteen had signed contracts that, as Bruce delicately puts it, “rather than evil were naive”). Finally he was liberated to work with his close collaborator, manager, and co-producer Jon Landau. (Appel is also interviewed separately, and while both he and Springsteen speak with a practiced civility about each other, in a separate interview, drummer Max Weinberg cuts to the chase: As far as he and Bruce saw it, Weinberg says bluntly, this was “someone trying to take [Springsteen's] career away.”)

Thus freed, Springsteen crafted his magisterially downbeat saga of what he now calls “deep despair and resilience and determination.” He made good on the promise that is revealed on The Promise.

Follow: @kentucker

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  • couchgrouch

    I don’t have HBO so I’ll have to wait on the boxed set for the doc. it’s coincidental that I just watched a boot of Bruce’s show at the NJ Passaic in 78 this AM. there is definitely a stark contrast to what artists were trying to accomplish then and now. this is an era where an EW critic praised Kanye West for his SNL “performance” because his auto-tune didn’t malfunction like last time. a low standard indeed. watching Bruce and the E-Street band put their all into songs of sprawling lyricism, blazing passion, not to mention great hooks, it makes most if not all of today’s samplers and drum machiners sound like something created by Rosie the Robot from the Jetsons.

  • Sue

    couchgrouch is spot on! The musicality in Springsteen’s music, aside from the heart-wrenching poetry of his lyrics, should make most of today’s pop stars drop to their knees in reverence. I hope younger people look at the time and devotion true artists give to their crafts. Bruce’s dedication to his work never waivers. I, too, will have to wait, but I’m thrilled to have a chance at such an intimate look at Bruce creative styles. Long live the Boss!!

  • Beth

    This almost makes me want to order HBO just to watch this tonight! Can’t wait to see it.

  • CountryClub

    The Boss

  • Dana

    The Boss!!!!!!!!! Thank God I have HBO

  • Mary

    I do have HBO and I can hardly wait for tonight!

  • rls

    I saw the doc at the Toronto Film Festival last month and it is quite great.
    Besides just adoring the Boss’ music, what makes me really love him is that he seems to see his art as a vocation and a calling and really takes it seriously. What his hard work leads to is great music and out-of-the-world live concerts. He’s a gift.

  • Lefty

    I saw 2 Darkness Tour concerts that year (’78): Sam Houston Coliseum in July, and The Summit in December. This was truly Springsteen’s golden age. And the Darkness album songs continue to be the heart of his setlists..

  • tracy bluth

    I have been listening to the album all day in preparation!!!

  • Jack

    I saw this movie at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) a couple weeks ago, TRUST ME, if you are a fan of The Boss in even the slightest, you will love this movie! It is incredibly well done, and Bruce is an incredible person! You will NOT be disappointed

  • faylor

    what time/channel

  • James L Howlett

    Today’s “rock/pop stars” should watch this. They might actually learn a thing or two about writing, playing, making a record and what it truly takes to be great.

  • james

    I get nostalgic thinking about the days when i would rush down to my local record store and buy the latest Springsteen release the day it came out. Then I’d sit around with friends and play the album over and over, we’d pour over the lyrics and debate what was the best song. I know that every generation feels like the next is missing out but I truly feel that the current generation is losing the communal aspect of music. it should be a shared experience as well as a private moment where you sit in your bedroom and get lost in the music. All of this is to say that I will be watching tonight and remembering how great it was when i first heard “Darkness”.

  • Edmonton Girl

    I love Bruce – always have, always will. He is an artist and a poet and a decent man, too.

  • Frank from MusicNerdClub.com

    Nice article! However, I disagree about the notion that artists in the rock music world seeking to unify music and a mass audience no longer exist. Of course Springsteen is still going at it. Certainly Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend seem vital, both bands with #1 albums this year too. You could even argue Jay-Z and Eminem at this point. Though I don’t enjoy her music much, even Lady Gaga is trying to push the ball forward to the masses. Bottom line: just because there are more niche genres and audiences today does not mean great artists won’t try to transcend such perceived limitations; after all, the great ones do transcend them.

    • couchgrouch

      Jay-Z and MM don’t compare to Bruce as their “music” is mostly obscenity and machines. it’s unlikely 35 years from now anyone will care their records. Lady Gaga’s headlines are about clothes, not music. the era where someone like Bruce could put out classic album after classic album as well be an electrifying live performer(with a BAND, not machines) is over. if you asked MM, Jay-Z or Kanye to write a single, melodic song without the use of machines or profanity they’d be lost.

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