Even For a Superfan, the Springsteen Streaming Special Offers Brilliant Surprises
Attending fifty or so shows may only seems average, or even meager, if you’re a huge Bruce Springsteen fan like me. But for purposes of this review, let’s just say I’ve seen him many times in multiple cities and in numerous incarnations. So I wasn’t sure how I’d feel when I saw Springsteen On Broadway in October. I was extremely lucky to even get a ticket, since by that time all the rave reviews had made it virtually impossible. Many similarly loyal Bossheads got shut out because everyone was blown away by the intimacy and intensity of the performance.
After walking out of the theater in rapt amazement, I wondered what it would be like for me if I hadn’t been a Bruce fan. After reading the press, I wondered if many of the reviewers had ever seen Springsteen at all. If I hadn’t already been primed, would this have reeled me in? Was it even a genuine representation of Springsteen, guy whose legend began with marathon concerts where crowd response was beyond essential? When I heard shortly thereafter that the end of the Broadway run would be marked with a “soundtrack” and Netflix special, I was completely stumped as to how it would work.
Longtime Springsteen collaborator Thom Zimmy (whose direction credits also include The Wire) filmed the show last July. The Netflix edition, and the project overall, works because this is a performed piece rather than a concert. Bruce, taking from this autobiography Born To Run (on which the play is based) begins by talking about the “magic trick” of creating an organic and transformative concert for a football stadium of adoring fans. This show performs another kind of magic trick, arguably more difficult. He was a little more raspy than usual for at least one of the shows filmed, but he’s performing as Bruce Springsteen on Broadway. The asides and jokes, although recycled for each show, feel genuine. At times he steps away from the microphone to sing and speak, although I’m sure a remote one was still operative.
Beginning with “Growing Up,” he’s conducting a masterwork in restraint. You might expect him to throw off the shackles and go “full Bruce,” but it never happens. The most poignant parts of the show include stories and songs about his father, who Springsteen openly admits he gave the black hat to from the stage. Now, having suffered through depression inherited from his dad, Bruce has a more sympathetic perspective. “My Father’s House” off Nebraska was especially powerful, especially since he rarely plays it. Yet he did play it, along with the rest of the songs from Nebraska, every night for almost two years. How could a guy who loves to change setlists do that?
It’s all part of the magic trick. Springsteen gets especially self-deprecating here, admitting that Mr. Born To Run lives right outside his hometown and that the guy who wrote “Racing In The Streets” couldn’t drive when leaving Jersey for the first time. After turning attention to his mom, he jokingly allows the crowd to “go off suicide watch.”
“The Wish,” which never appeared on an album before the Tracks box set, opens the portion on his mother. During these performances, Springsteen admitted that his mom, 94 right now, has been living through Alzheimer’s disease for the last seven years. But she still retains the joy and optimism of her youth, he reveals. You realize that this is how Bruce became Bruce. He’s got parts of both parents, good and bad.
He plays more of the hits–“Thunder Road,” “The Promised Land,” and “Born In The USA”–in a muted, but not depressing, voice. You can hear a pick drop in the theater and you realize you are hearing Springsteen, maybe for the first time, as a crooner. He brings his wife onstage for “Tougher Than The Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise.” I’ve never been a big fan of Patti’s voice (few are beyond Bruce himself), but you could feel the musical and emotional chemistry. As my wife, an even bigger fan than me, points out, it can’t be easy to be married to Bruce Springsteen.
The final part of the show brings it all together. Bruce talks about finding his band, his true love, and getting older. When he brings up losing Clarence Clemons, you can see him fighting back the tears. I was able to excuse the umpteenth performance of “Dancing In The Dark” after hearing of his mother’s eternal love of dancing. By “Land Of Hope And Dreams” and “Born To Run,” we finally get the Springsteen onstage experience. He’s singing and strumming like the rock star he is.
It’s an amazing performance, but it’s a performance. I don’t know how he did it so many times or if I’d want to watch it again without it losing something. But that’s why Bruce is Bruce and I’m waiting for whatever magic trick he’s got coming next.