Bruce Springsteen recently took a break from arena tours for a 236-date run on Broadway that offered fans an introspective look at his catalogue. Tickets were notoriously difficult to acquire, leaving many rock fans in the cold, but now everyone has a chance to catch the show. As the run concluded on December 15, Netflix released a recorded version titled ‘Springsteen on Broadway.’ It’s streaming now. Here’s what you can expect.
- It’s long and, brother, it’s intimate. But that shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the Boss.
Springsteen isn’t much for half-measures. It was only two years ago, after all, that he and the E Street Band played their longest US concert, rocking for four hours and three minutes. Say what you will about the Boss, but the 69-year-old rocker certainly is tougher than the rest.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that his Netflix special is a little over 2 1/2 hours. Don’t worry, though: It will keep you glued to the couch. Replacing the extended jams between songs are personal stories, anecdotes, reflections and jokes. All the while, director Thom Zimny keeps his camera especially tight on Springsteen, often showing the rocker’s face in extreme close-up as he sings or tells revealing tales.
The result is a new kind of concert film, one that exposes a rock ‘n’ roll icon as a human being, as broken and as resilient as the rest of us.
- Springsteen lays himself bare (and exposes his sense of humour) by telling the truth: He ain’t no factory man.
One criticism people have levied at Springsteen over the years is that he isn’t the blue-collar guy his songs make him out to be. That’s not to say he grew up wealthy, but he wasn’t working in auto shops, having meetings across the river and throwing money on bloodstained beds.
While he disavowed fans of these many notions in his extensive 2016 autobiography ‘Born to Run,’ he doles out the actual story of his life throughout the special, from his childhood to the present — sometimes poking fun at himself for the fiction he created, sometimes bragging about how good he is. For anyone who isn’t familiar with his book, his honesty is fairly eye-opening.
“I’ve never held an honest job in my entire life. I’ve never done any hard labour. I’ve never worked 9 to 5. I’ve never worked five days a week, until right now,” he says after playing his first number, ‘Growin’ Up’ from his debut record ‘Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ.’ “I don’t like it.”
“I’ve never seen the inside of a factory, and yet it’s all I’ve ever written about,” Springsteen says, as he walks across the Broadway stage. “Standing before you is a man who has become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something of which he has had absolutely no personal experience. I made it all up.”
He smiles. “That’s how good I am.”
And that’s not the only fiction. Later in the show, he admits that he never drove a car — never wanted to — until he was 20 years old. But that didn’t stop him from writing songs like ‘Thunder Road’ and ‘Born to Run,’ from mythologising burned-out Chevrolets and the freedom of the open road.
Throughout the special, he tells his own stories. They start off like he’s telling musical myths, such as when he’s describing buying his first guitar as a seven-year-old. The story begins to feel apocryphal as he calls the guitar “a sword in the stone, the staff of righteousness, and they sell them at Western Auto downtown!” He spends a full minute describing opening the alligator guitar case and pulling it out — but instead of the moment of divine revelation the audience expects, he punctures the mood with the hilarious truth.
- The set list is about what you’d expect, but the songs take on new meaning.
Springsteen has released 18 studio and 23 live albums, which amounts to hundreds of songs. Devoted fans wishing for an evening of deep cuts might be disappointed. He generally sticks to more popular tunes such as ‘Born to Run,’ ‘Born in the USA,’ ‘Thunder Road’ and ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad.’
The setting and the stories, though, imbue them with new meaning. At one point, the musician sits at his piano and tell a touching story about meeting Clarence Clemons, the iconic ‘Big Man’ who played saxophone in the E Street Band, for the first time. Clemons died in 2011.
“He was elemental in my life, and losing him was like losing the rain,” Springsteen says sadly.
He then launches into ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out’. The original version is a rock-y, dance-y anthem powered by Clemons’ funky sax. Here, though, it’s sombre and reflective, nothing but the slowed-down piano and Springsteen’s sorrowful croak.
Likewise, his stripped down version of ‘Dancing in the Dark’ highlights the darkness over the dancing by focusing on the depressing lyrics that usually remain hidden beneath a wall of hip-shaking synthesisers.
- Only one person can go toe-to-toe with the Boss: his wife, Patti Scialfa.
“She is the queen of my heart, she is my flaming beauty, my Jersey girl. She is a great songwriter, one of the loveliest voices I’ve ever heard,” Springsteen says before recounting the night he met Scialfa, the singer-songwriter who would become his wife.
She’s the only other person who appears on the stage during the show, singing lovely versions of ‘Tougher Than the Rest’ and ‘Brilliant Disguise.’
Again, these songs take on vastly different meanings in this context. Both are cuts from ‘Tunnel of Love,’ arguably Springsteen’s most personal — and saddest — album (sorry, ‘Nebraska’). He wrote it while his first marriage dissolved, and the songs don’t take an optimistic view of romance. New York Times critic Jon Pareles described ‘Brilliant Disguise’ as “a heart wrenching song about never being really able to know someone.”
But as the spouses sing it softly together, embracing and sharing a kiss when they finish, it feels like they’ve flipped the premise on its head, as if Springsteen’s heart was cynical when he wrote words that he no longer believes — thanks to Scialfa and the music that brought them together.
- You can replay the special on streaming services.
So much of the intimacy and warmth of ‘Springsteen on Broadway’ comes from actually seeing the Boss — his facial expressions, the way he paces the stage or stands still during emotional stories, the desperation with which he makes that guitar talk — that it’s worth watching it on the biggest screen you can find.
But if the songs are stuck in your head, or you want to revisit the stories on your commute to work, audio of the entire show is streaming on Spotify.
Don’t miss it!
‘Springsteen on Broadway’ is streaming now on Netflix.