Tuesday, October 05, 2010

HBO's 'The Promise' chronicles creation of Bruce Springsteen's 'Darkness on the Edge of Town' album

By David Hinckley
The Daily News
Monday, October 4th 2010, 4:00 AM

Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa arrive at the premiere of 'The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town' at the Toronto Film Festival.(Gunn/AP)

Nancy Geller says you don't need her level of Bruce Springsteen devotion to appreciate "The Promise," a documentary, on HBO Thursday at 9 p.m., about the making of Springsteen's 1978 "Darkness on the Edge of Town" album.

But okay, it wouldn't hurt.

Which has also turned out to be sound ratings business, because a film like "The Promise" just plain tells a good story.

"When we premiered it at the Toronto Film Festival," says Jon Landau, Springsteen's manager and working partner, "it was clear this isn't just fan-oriented."

"I had known Bruce since the early 1970s," says Rebo. "I wanted to be a cameraman, and here was this great performer who was also incredibly charismatic. It was a natural fit, so I shot him on and off for years.

The fact that the film exists at all is a happy bit of serendipity. Even better, says Zimny, is the feeling Rebo captured.

"He was the classic fly on the wall," says Zimny. "You get a very honest look at what's going on."

"Ninety percent of the time," says Landau, "we didn't even know or remember that he was there. We didn't do anything for filming purposes. If we were listening to playbacks in a dark room, that was the light he had."

"Often there was virtually no light," says Rebo. "I'd rig up a tube on the camera lens to focus in. When the film looks grainy, that's why. I wanted to live the moment, not influence it."

Perhaps the film's most exuberant scene has Bruce at the piano pounding out a crude version of "Sherry Darling" - which didn't make it onto "Darkness" - with Little Steven Van Zandt beside him, beating on the top of the piano with a pair of drumsticks. "That scene says so much," says Zimny. "It's an unedited view of exactly how it was in 1978."

That meant "Darkness" had to reestablish him. Both at the time and through subsequent interviews Zimny weaves into the film, Bruce explains he wanted a darker sound, feeling and message about coming to terms with the adult world.

He wrote some 70 songs and cut them down to 10, leaving out gems like "The Promise" as well as tunes like "Fire" and "Because the Night" that became big hits for the Pointer Sisters and Patti Smith.

Landau admits in the film that at times, the marathon process "wasn't fun," and Springsteen jokes that "since I had no life," he forced the band to share his obsession with perfection.

But in the end, a classic rock 'n' roll record emerged, and Zimny says he tried to make a film that told that story while showing the same discipline.

"We lost some great scenes," he says, "so we didn't slow down the story we wanted to tell."

Both in message and feel, says Nancy Geller, it works.

When you go to a live Bruce show, she explains, "You want to be within ‘sweat distance.' "On the ‘Born in the U.S.A.' tour, I made it to the front row a couple of times, and that was the best. A film like this makes you feel like you're inside sweat distance."

HBO film captures key moments for Springsteen

By DAVID BAUDER – Mon Oct 4, 9:18 am ET
Associated Press

NEW YORK – Bruce Springsteen doesn't imagine his three children, ranging in age from 16 to 20, would be that interested in a new HBO documentary on his 1978 album "Darkness on the Edge of Town."

Maybe they will later, since the movie is partly for them.

"Do you really want to watch your dad, watching thousands cheer your parents?" he said. "Nobody wants to see that. Watching people boo your folks, that would be something worth coming to see."

For his fans, the film "The Promise: The Making of `Darkness on the Edge of Town" is an intriguing peek, supplemented with home video from the time, into the creative process of a music legends at a key time in his career. Burdened by a management lawsuit and brooding over newfound fame at age 27, Springsteen and his E Street Band produced a taut treatise on growing into adulthood within a faltering economy. The film debuts Oct. 7 at 9 p.m. ET.

Getting there was anything but easy. Springsteen wrote and discarded far more songs than he used — fans will be able to hear many of them later this fall — as he whittled the band's sound from expansive to lean and made sure the disc hung together creatively.

One night a bleary-eyed Springsteen forced poor Max Weinberg to repeatedly hit his snare drum, searching for a sound he imagined in his head but could never quite get on tape.

"Madness has its rewards — if in the end you don't destroy yourself," Springsteen said. "I had an idea but a lot of it, looking back now, probably could have been dispensed with and everyone would have been left with a little more of their sanity. But that was how we made those records. I believed at that time that you had to work hard at something. I didn't trust anything that came too easily."

That may have tortured a few band members but the attitude made him think hard about what he wanted to say and made for well-constructed songs.

"I wanted them to last and they did last," he said. Along with the title cut, the album features "Badlands," "Prove It All Night" and "Racing in the Street."

Sheer luck made this video document possible.

A friend at the time, Barry Reebo, frequently followed Springsteen and his gang with a video camera, back to when the rocker played small clubs. No one thought twice when Reebo hung around the studio during the "Darkness" sessions. He didn't use big lights. Sometimes it seems the musicians forgot he was there.

After reforming the E Street Band a decade ago following a hiatus, Springsteen began thinking about video archives of their work, particularly for younger fans who knew nothing of their epic late 1970s performances.

Reebo hadn't sold his footage, and Springsteen was surprised at all he had. He struck a deal, and filmmaker Thom Zinny made "The Promise" by mixing the old tapes with current recollections from Springsteen and his band.

"We caught the band at a very pivotal moment — immediately post-success, and I'm in the throes of trying to figure out what I'm all about, trying to figure out what that success meant," he said.

Success was fine, but he mistrusted it. He felt safe among the places and people he grew up with in New Jersey.

"I felt there was a story there, the late '70s in the United States, what they call the Carter recession," Springsteen recalled. "I thought there was an interesting and unique story in my neck of the woods that wasn't being alluded to or told very much in American rock music. It was being told in England by the Clash, but not so much in American rock music."

He pursued it with an almost maniacal sense of purpose.

"We were in the studio for a long time not because we were interested in making records, but because we were interested in making purposeful records," he said. "We were interested in making essential records."

George Pimentel/Getty Images

In September Bruce Springsteen sat down for an hour-long chat with actor/friend Ed Norton as part of the Mavericks program at this year's Toronto International Film Festival.

Family was also on his mind. He didn't feel he really knew his parents and what they went through — the song "Factory" was about his dad's blue collar life — and "The Promise" exists in part so Springsteen's children will have a document of how their father handled the curiosity of his own teen years.

The "Darkness" album came three years after "Born to Run," a lifetime in that musical era. For much of that time, Springsteen was prevented from releasing music due to a lawsuit involving his former manager, Mike Appel. Appel was a big music fan with his own vision for Springsteen's career, and the lawsuit was strictly about control, Springsteen said.

Appel even appears in "The Promise" and issues what could be interpreted as an admission that he had been wrong. "I had strong ideas," Appel said. "In the end, you have to say, `Mike, who's the artist?'"

Springsteen laughs when he's asked if he's ever gotten an apology. "No," he said. "I've never asked him to and he doesn't have to. We're very good friends."

It's a season of "Darkness" for Springsteen. On Nov. 16, Columbia will release two products centered on the period. One is "The Promise," a two-CD set of material recorded then that never made the original 10-song album. It contains 21 songs, including "Fire," which became a hit for the Pointer Sisters, and "Because the Night," which Patti Smith took, added some of her own lyrics and turned into the biggest hit of her career.

The songs likely formed the bones of an album never made between "Born to Run" and "Darkness."

A more extensive package, formed to look like the notebooks Springsteen used for song lyrics at the time, contains those two CDs and a remastered version of "Darkness on the Edge of Town." It also contains three DVDs with the HBO documentary and four hours of concert footage.

The material includes an entire 26-song Houston concert from 1978, and a 2009 recording of Springsteen and his band performing the "Darkness" album in its entirety at an empty Paramount Theater in Asbury Park, N.J.

Springsteen described his recording process at the time as "making a huge splatter painting and standing back and editing and shaping the way I wanted it to come out."

The outtakes "really hold together as a body of work because they all came out of the same sessions, the same sounds and tones. ... It's an interesting bunch of music that I hope the fans enjoy."

On the Net:



The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein on the collision of entertainment, media and pop culture

'The Promise': Who knew Bruce Springsteen owned so many white T-shirts

October 1, 2010 11:45 am

If you're any kind of music fan at all, you'll want to see "The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town." This new film gives us a fascinating glimpse of Bruce Springsteen in 1977, when he was in the midst of making the pivotal, post-"Born to Run" album that established him as more than just a one-hit Time and Newsweek cover boy wonder. The documentary, made by Thom Zimny, will debut on HBO on Oct. 7. I got a chance to see it the other night at Sony Music, which is housed in CAA's old Beverly Hills headquarters.

Half the fun was seeing all the old Springsteen fans on hand, including the likes of New Line chief Toby Emmerich, who got his start working at Atlantic Records, and my old pal, longtime Sony soundtracks guru Glen Brunman, who took me backstage to meet Springsteen when I was just a hopelessly dopey college kid. I'm no longer a starry-eyed Springsteen fan, having been underwhelmed by much of his recent work. But he was at the top of his game when he was making "Darkness on the Edge of Town," which as the documentary makes clear, was the work of an artist determined to make his mark. Or as Springsteen says of his youthful self in a present-day interview in the film: "More than being rich or famous or happy, I wanted to be great."

The film is punctuated with present-day interviews with Springsteen, his longtime manager Jon Landau and the rest of the E Street Band. But what makes it worth seeing is the extensive footage of Springsteen and Co. at work in the studio, the Boss almost always clad in a white T-shirt, involved in the often-agonizing process of making the "Darkness" album. After the success of "Born to Run," Springsteen became embroiled in a dispute with his former manager, Mike Appel, which had prevented him from recording a new album for nearly two years -- an eternity in that era. So Springsteen and the band rehearsed and worked on new material every night until the lawsuit was settled and they could go back into the studio.

The film offers a rare look at an artist trying to establish an identity while also attempting to come to terms with his own ambition. Springsteen acknowledges viewing success as a dark cloud, since stardom was cutting him off from his deep, bar-band, working-class roots, which were exactly what provided the fuel for his sucess in the first place. So how did he survive?

Watching him in the studio recording "Darkness," Springsteen reminded me of a lot of young filmmakers that I've seen at work -- apparently it's a common artistic trait to feel the need to keep tight control of the decision-making process without ever actually committing to a decision. Springsteen had written untold dozens of songs, but he had such trouble picking a final lineup for the album that the bandmembers would regularly bet on which ones he'd keep and which ones would get bumped. Even the film's title is something of a sly joke, since "The Promise" was a song that Springsteen spent three months recording, and then yanked from the record, saying in retrospect that he was too close to it.

Still, Springsteen's writing process is pretty fascinating. He would take a verse or a riff from one song in his notebook and graft it onto another song, likening it to how a mechanic would pull parts out of one car to make another one run. "Because the Night" -- one of Springsteen's most commercial songs -- was a product of these sessions. But it was left off the record because, as Springsteen now tells it, he was "too cowardly" to really write a love song, so he gave it to Patti Smith, who completed the lyrics and had her only big hit with it.

The movie has its share of light touches, including a comical sequence in which we see Springsteen, ever the perfectionist, obssessing for days over how to properly record Max Weinberg's drum sound. But as with so many films that show us our icons in their youth, the best moments allow us to see an artist exploring and experimenting with his gifts, trying to figure out what kind of artist he wants to be.

At the time of "Darkness," Springsteen was so young and strikingly handsome (and full of inner turmoil) that it's easy to see why filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese thought he could have been a terrific actor. When he's in the studio, soulfully singing one of his heart-breaking ballads, Springsteen has just as much live-wire charisma as the young DeNiro or Pacino. But Springsteen only wanted to be a rock star, and the biggest joy anyone can get from this film is seeing just how hard he worked to fulfill that promise.

Photo: Bruce Springsteen, appearing on the cover of "Darkness on the Edge of Town." Credit: Frank Stefanko / Sony Music Entertainment

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