Television review: ‘The Promise’
There was a time when major figures of pop and rock were willing to let people with movie cameras follow them around just to see what they might see, but the contemporary rock-doc is more likely to represent an act of managed self-promotion than of reckless self-exposure. (Reality television, which uses dirty laundry to bolster flagging careers, does not count.) You should not expect to see another “Don’t Look Back” (D.A. Pennebaker watches Bob Dylan toy catlike with reporters, fans, friends) or “Gimme Shelter” (the Rolling Stones clueless at Altamont, as seen by the brothers Maysles) or “Let It Be” (Beatles rehearse breakup on camera for Michael Lindsay-Hogg), or even Madonna’s less-than-flattering “Truth or Dare” anytime soon. At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with a portrait of an artist from the artist’s perspective — if the artist has one.
There are few musicians more compulsively or articulately self-reflective than Bruce Springsteen; “Know thyself” could stand as the motto for his whole career, and the 61-year-old product of that long refinement is your guide for “The Promise: The Making of ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town,’” which looks back at the creation of what is in many ways his most important, if not actually his most successful album. The film, which premieres Thursday on HBO, about a month before it appears as part of a three-CD, three-DVD expanded reissue, was born as a promotional piece. (A similar documentary, “Wings to Wheels” — directed, like this one, by Thom Zimny — was included in the 2005 reissue of Springsteen’s “Born to Run.”) But it’s an interesting and lively one.
If this is a piece whose primary appeal will be to fans, that is still a whole mess of people, and strangers who wander in will find some compelling music and a remarkably articulate rock star whose aims and priorities will seem remarkably distinct from what they might imagine rock star aims and priorities to be. (Compare and contrast the recent “Stones in Exile,” assembled to accompany a rerelease of the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street.”)
The songs on “Darkness,” says Springsteen, were made in part as “a reaction to my own good fortune” and to satisfy “a sense of accountability to people I’d grown up alongside” — the people who, but for the grace of a Fender guitar, he might still be among.
After the success of “Born to Run,” the singer had been kept from recording for a year and a half as a result of a legal battle with a former manager. When he finally got back in the studio in the fall of 1977, after much touring and woodshedding — we see shirtless rehearsals of new songs at his New Jersey farmhouse — he had something different in mind from the Turnpike operas and alley-ballet scores he was famous for, a “music that felt angry and rebellious yet it also felt adult,” informed, spiritually if not sonically, by punk rock on the one hand and country music on the other. The very sound of the record, stripped and stark and evocative of “the players fighting for space” (in the words of Chuck Plotkin, who mixed the record) obliges Springsteen’s theme of a “life of limits and compromise but also a life of resilience and commitment to life.”
The heart of “The Promise,” which takes its name from one of the many songs that didn’t make the album’s final cut, is the black-and-white video footage shot in the studio during those months of recording. We see it in snippets rather than in scenes, but it gives some indication of the tediousness and intensity (and the technical issues) that make up making a record. There is some allusion to creative tensions, but this is more declared than shown — there are no thrown chairs, or petulant ultimatums, or sudden walk-outs — and it’s no revelation to learn that the Boss can be a demanding boss.
For the most part “The Promise” swaths a difficult time in a warm glow of remembered good times, older selves recalling younger, content in the knowledge that the thing they have together is good. There’s a lot of laughter, in the new footage and the old. Even Mike Appel, the manager who kept Springsteen from recording all those years ago, is a friend again — a perfectly appropriate conclusion to the story that “Darkness” begins.
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