wed 21/08/2019

Springsteen on Broadway, Netflix review - one-man band becomes one-man show | reviews, news & interviews

Springsteen on Broadway, Netflix review - one-man band becomes one-man show

Springsteen on Broadway, Netflix review - one-man band becomes one-man show

An emotional trip into the mind of New Jersey's patron saint

Glory days: Bruce hits the Great White Way

When Bruce Springsteen’s one-man show opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre on New York’s West 48th Street in October last year it was only supposed to run for six weeks. This being Springsteen, however, demand proved almost limitless, so the season was extended twice, and the Boss (as he doesn't like being called) takes his last bow on 15 December.

So you never got a ticket? No worries. There’s an audio version of the show in various formats, and now Netflix is launching a full-scale film of the event, directed by Thom Zimny, which puts you right at the front of the stalls and lets you see Springsteen up-closer and more personal than you’ve ever seen him before. You can read every nuance, twitch, bead of sweat or occasional tear as he works his way through a sort of poeticised, rhetorical version of his life and career, and it's shot involvingly enough to convince you that you're right there in the theatre with him.

But at two hours 40 minutes, even I would have to admit that one’s stamina is sometimes tested. The opening section in particular, where Springsteen relies more on his verbal narrative to transport us back to the town of Freehold, New Jersey where he grew up and less on the music than he does later in the performance, feels shaggy and eminently editable. Much of the show derives from his autobiography Born to Run, and hasn't entirely shaken off the obsessive prolixity sometimes evident in the book.

Still, Bruce fans are accustomed to his four-hour live shows (though of course there they do get a full-scale band to hold their attention), and they will also know that he’s a superb raconteur and often hilarious storyteller. Lengthy monologues about his life and family used to be integral to his concerts, so much so that Dave Marsh used extracts from them to write his first biography of Bruce. What’s striking here is how Springsteen exhibits the control and composure of a professional actor as he works his way from childhood to his 60-something self, touching on key events and characters who have helped to shape him along the way. The E Street Band’s late saxophonist Clarence Clemons is given a particularly touching tribute, in which Springsteen sings him on his way with “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” and describes him as “elemental in my life”.

His angry, hard-drinking father Douglas is a recurring character, as he has often been in his stage monologues. Among revealing anecdotes is his recollection of being sent, as a young boy, by his mother into the bar where his father was drinking with his workmates to tell him his wife was waiting outside. His recollections of the sounds and smells and atmosphere of the booze-heavy bar are vivid and tangible, an intimation of the adult world that fascinated junior Bruce (cue a performance of “My Father’s House”). Later, he talks about how his father unexpectedly visited him just before the birth of his first child, as a kind of apology (as Bruce read it) for their past conflicts and a handing on of the genetic baton. This prompts a fine and poignant version of “Long Time Coming”, a song about not repeating the mistakes your parents made.

"Born in the USA" is performed as a raw plantation blues with 12-string slide guitar, and gives Bruce a platform to recall friends who didn't return from Vietnam and how he met anti-war veteran Ron Kovic at Hollywood's Tropicana motel. The only non-solo segment is where he’s joined by his wife Patti Scialfa, who adds harmonies to “Tougher than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise” (you have to wonder what she thinks about lyrics like “I want to know if it’s you I don’t trust / Cos I damn sure don’t trust myself”). They sound terrific together, so much so that you can't help feeling it would have been nice if she’d been more than a bit-part player in her husband’s arching narrative (pictured below, Bruce arrives for the opening night of Springsteen on Broadway).

En route, Springsteen purports to pull back the curtain and show his audience the artifice behind the grand facade of superstardom. “I’ve never worked five days a week until right now… I’ve never seen the inside of a factory and yet it’s all I’ve ever written about… I made it all up! That’s how good I am.” Songs like “Born to Run” and “Thunder Road” were romantic and splendid dreams of getting the hell away from the unhip, unloved Jersey Shore, whose mythology he single-handedly invented, yet now, as he points out, he lives only a stone’s throw from where he began.

But of course Springsteen on Broadway itself is another carefully crafted artefact, its seemingly spontaneous revelations and insights scripted and repeated nightly. Springsteen’s gifts as performer, raconteur and self-analyst enable him to sweep you into his interior world almost before you realise it, and it’s a magic trick as powerful as any he’s pulled off in his career. Not for the supremely self-aware and exacting Springsteen the routine fare of the jukebox musical or the gaudy biopic. But that still doesn’t mean that Springsteen on Broadway couldn’t have benefitted from a few robust snips of the editing shears.

  • Springsteen on Broadway is available on Netflix from 16 December

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