December 7, 2018
Since October 2017, Bruce Springsteen has been singing his songs and telling his stories, five nights a week, in one of the most intimates venues he has performed in since becoming a star in the ’70s: Broadway’s 948-seat Walter Kerr Theatre. But the film of the show, which will debut on Netflix Dec. 16, feels even more intimate.
Obviously, it lacks the jolt of excitement you get from seeing a performer such as Springsteen in the flesh, and hearing the music as it’s being played, in front of you, in the same room. But director Thom Zimny compensates by filming much of the show in extreme close-up.
You can see every line and crease in Springsteen’s face, and notice every slight change in his expression. You’re right with him, every step of the way, in a way that you aren’t, even in a theater as small as the Walter Kerr. You hang on every note, every beat, every deliberately delivered story. And so, it’s ultimately a slightly different but similarly fulfilling kind of experience.
If you’re reading this, I assume you know the basics of the show already: 16 songs, including both greatest hits (“Born to Run,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Thunder Road”) and less widely known gems (“The Wish,” “My Father’s House”), with simple piano, guitar and harmonica backing. Patti Scialfa sings and plays guitar on a two-song segment, “Tougher Than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise,” but other than that, Springsteen is alone on the set, which has a brick wall in the back and is pretty much empty except for the instruments and some equipment cases.
Following the lead of Springsteen’s 2016 autobiography “Born to Run,” “Springsteen on Broadway” basically tells the story of Springsteen’s life, from boyhood to maturity, with long monologues between many of the songs. I’ve seen only one of the shows live — a preview, in October 2017 — but can say that the show changed substantially from when I saw it, to when the Netflix special was filmed (in front of invitation-only crowds on two nights in July).
Some lines were cut out; other were added. The stories grew and evolved, as you would expect them to. There are two songs in the special that were not in the show I saw in 2017 (“Long Time Comin’,” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad”), and one song that I heard then (“Long Walk Home”) is absent.
My main criticism of the show, from 2017, remains: The first half of the show is extremely powerful, with lots of vivid stories about Springsteen’s childhood and young adulthood. In the second half, though, the stories get more perfunctory, the mood more philosophical, the autobiographical elements more sketchy. The subject matter, as on “Land of Hope and Dreams,” is more abstract. “The Rising” is performed without any introduction at all.
The second half is still great, but not as stunning as the first half is, with its richly detailed portraits of Springsteen’s mother and father, and the Freehold that he grew up in, and his early days as a struggling musician.
The tone is often somber, but occasionally very funny as well, as in this description of the difficulties Springsteen faced as an aspiring rock star who happened to live in the New Jersey “boondocks”:
I’ve already played in front of every conceivable audience. I’ve played firemen’s fairs, midnight madness supermarket openings. Drive-in movies, in front of the concession stands, in between films. I’ve played … coffeeshops, bowling alleys, trailer parks, roller rinks, VFW halls, CYO canteens, the Elks lodge, YMCA gymnasiums, hockey rinks, county fairs, carnivals, high school dances, weddings, fraternity parties. Bar mitzvahs! Soul revues! Battle of the bands! Sing Sing Prison! And Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital! Send me your murderers and your maniacs, and let me entertain them, all right? That’s what I do.That’s all true. It’s all before I was 23 years old, and I’m frustrated. I listen to the radio, and I think I’m as good as that guy, I’m better than that guy. So why not me? Answer: Because I live in the fucking boondocks. … There is nobody here, and no one comes down here. It’s a grave. There was no Jersey, Jersey, Jersey Shore, Jersey Almighty shit. I invented that!Before me, Jersey was Jerserkistan. Jerserkistan! One of those little -stan things that nobody knows a fucking thing about. And New York was a million miles away. …So who was gonna come to the Jersey Shore, to discover the next big thing, in 1971? You’re correct. No-fucking-body. …I had one shot. My girlfriend at the time did me a great favor, brought a guy who had a successful recording band down to the Student Prince … in Asbury Park to discover us. We got up on a little stage, in a club that fit 150 people. It was about half full. And we played for this guy like we were at Madison Square Garden, with everything we had, all night long. We played five sets, from 9 p.m. till 3 a.m.At the end of the night, soaked to my bones, I got off the bandstand. The guy walked up to me, he looked me in the eye and shook my hand and said, “You guys are the best unsigned band I’ve ever seen.” Then he slept with my girlfriend and left town.That’s the end of that story.
The last “Springsteen on Broadway” live show will be on Dec. 15. The two-CD Springsteen on Broadway soundtrack album will be released on Dec. 14, and “Springsteen on “Broadway” debuts on Netflix at 3:01 a.m. ET Dec. 16, and will remain streamable there, indefinitely.