Among the most touching moments in the film adaptation of Bruce Springsteen’s hit theatrical show “Springsteen on Broadway” — and there are many in the documentary that premieres Sunday on Netflix — is one in which he recounts a dream he had shortly after his father died in 1998.
Their contentious relationship plays a significant role in this show, just as it often has come up in Springsteen concerts when he spun his shaggy dog yarns about his childhood in Freehold, N.J.
He sets up their difficult dynamic early in the performance, which is roughly constructed along the lines of the chapters in his eminently readable and illuminating autobiography “Born to Run”: a segment on his extended family, a portrait of his neighborhood through the eyes of a scrawny kid who never felt he fit in, then a deep and often dark rumination about his father, Doug, whom he describes as “my hero and also my greatest foe.”
He talks of struggling to earn his father’s approval and being mystified by his remoteness, a function of a deep depression that Springsteen the son didn’t understand until well into adulthood. It was, ultimately, a key motivation for him to get the heck out of Freehold by whatever means he could.
He never mentions Elvis Presley by name, but there’s no question whom he’s talking about when he tells of being glued to the family’s TV set one Sunday night in 1956. “The revolution had been televised!” he says with a preacher’s energy and conviction. Those who tuned in that night were shown the promise of “a freer existence. The mold had finally changed in an instant!?”
A little more than three decades later, after achieving global fame, financial fortune and the admiration of millions of fans — and after becoming a parent himself — Springsteen said the dream came to him, one in which he and his father were at a concert together.
It doesn’t play out like the audience might expect.
When I caught the show in August in New York, my first thought was that in his dream, Bruce would be playing his heart out on stage for his father to see. Then, taking all this in, his dad would admit he’d been wrong all those years ago.
Suffice to say such a linear idea isn’t how things play out, and Springsteen shares a different unrealized exchange that’s sure to bring mist, if not tears, to the eyes of viewers of director Thom Zimny’s film.
Zimny, Springsteen’s collaborator on a number of previous film projects, has done a remarkable job capturing the intimacy, the honesty, the inspiration and the music of “Springsteen on Broadway.” His film honors the show’s spirit without engaging in any fussy camera work, backstage interviews or other behind-the-scenes material.
It’s the right choice, as the film runs roughly 2½ hours, the same length the show itself grew into as the Broadway run progressed over more than a year of sold-out performances. (As Springsteen humorously notes, “I never worked in a factory, never set foot inside a factory, I never held a Monday-through-Friday job in my life — until I did this show.”)
What Zimny and his crew do so effectively is to bring viewers closer to the performer than they could get even if they’d shelled out the $850 top face value price.
As a result, the “Springsteen on Broadway” film becomes a more personal view, in which we can see the subtleties of Springsteen’s facial expressions, twitches, smiles, the crinkling of his eyes, the palpable joy that radiates from his pores when he talks about the redemptive quality of the rock, soul, R&B, gospel, blues, folk and country music he’s been immersed in for virtually his entire life.
We also get to move in closer on the interactions between Springsteen and his wife, Patti Scialfa, when she comes on for the section he devotes to discussing family, love and children. She adds her colorful voice in harmony when he serves up “Tougher Than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise” to highlight those themes.
One key element never afforded to visitors to the Walter Kerr Theatre is a few shots from the back of the stage, catching Springsteen as he addresses the audience. Intriguingly, although the audience’s presence is often evident from applause at the end of a dozen or so songs he weaves into the narrative, there’s very little visual element showing fans until the end, when cameras follow Springsteen bidding adieu and shaking hands with some of the front-row seat holders.
Springsteen ambles onstage at the start, wearing a black T-shirt, black denim jeans and motorcycle boots. Through the show, he shifts between just two primary focal points: a microphone at center stage where he speaks and sings, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and, occasionally, harmonica; the other, his seat at the bench of a grand piano, where he taps out chords and rudimentary fills at the keyboard.
There are no artifacts of a half-century’s worth of life as a rock ‘n’ roll warrior surrounding him, just a stark wood plank stage and a brick wall visible behind him. It’s just Springsteen and his words, which, as in his songs, is often effusive, visually evocative and emotionally charged.
And only toward the end does he engage in any topical conversation, as he reflects on the young people he watched taking part in March for Our Lives demonstrations last spring.
“These are times when we’ve also seen folks marching, and in the highest offices of our land, who want to speak to our darkest angels, who want to call up the ugliest and most divisive ghosts of America’s past,” he says. “And they want to destroy the idea of an America for all. That’s their intention.”
It’s another deeply felt moment that Springsteen delivers not as an angry or vindictive critic, but more as a town crier, someone intent on alerting his friends, neighbors and fellow citizens to the perils around them.
It’s 2½ hours with a true believer who cut his chops back in the day when people thought rock ‘n’ roll might save the world. Clearly, he’s still a believer.
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