Springsteen on Broadway
Director: Thom Zimny
Bruce Springsteen has been playing the role of Bruce Springsteen for far longer than he was ever actually “Bruce Springsteen”. Now, the same is true of a lot of the famous rock’n’rollers that grew up out of that era and firmly in public. Sir Paul of Macca is a Walking Press Release for a Beatles Jukebox after-all. But nobody has more cloyingly crafted a faux-authenticity shtick than the blue-chip blue-collar guy that dresses like a working man but is dubbed The Boss.
Here he dresses down some of his best-known songs – and a few obscurities – and parades them around as the occasional soundtrack to a choked-up humblebrag for Netflix filmed from his Broadway run, in what amounts to, essentially, a walking-talking director’s commentary for the memoir he wrote recently.
But I won’t be dissuading any Springsteen fans with what will almost instantly be dismissed as a disingenuous rant from a fairweather fan. And that’s fine. I’m not – really – trying to. I’m more trying to understand the ongoing appeal of a man who is in Elton John Territory in the sense that you couldn’t possibly put together a Greatest Hits EP from his last two decades. And sure, that’s possibly irrelevant, you can argue the work was done at some point and the best of it still stands. My bafflement comes from the ceremony this Boss stands on – and as callous as it might be to suggest it, 9/11 – and the risible album-response, The Rising, was the 21st Century Remaking of Bruce Springsteen. Without that he’d be nothing.
And so just as the spirit of that is waning he comes clean about his depression and daddy issues. And though it’s a cruel mind and a heartless clod that tries to tread on anyone’s attempts to unburden themselves or is trying simply to understand themselves in public – particularly around such issues – what I’m hoping to get at is that I don’t believe The Boss.
He’s never been of the people, let alone for them. He’s a man that knows how to get paid. He works hard for that money, sure. His concerts resembling a week of leg-workouts at the gym.
Many of his songs are almost ruined by the bombast of The E-Street Band, but here, stripped back, they almost don’t exist. That same gritted-teeth version of integrity, a jingoistic jangle from the acoustic and a tangle of Steinbeckian tropes and “got a job working construction” clichés haunt the stage and the hushed reverence is nearly sickening.
Wife Patti arrives on stage late in the piece to duet on two songs, save for that this show is just Bruce. His guitar. Occasionally a piano. He’s more effective – and affecting – when seated at the 88 keys. More believable, perhaps. At the least it offers a moment, or two, of genuine surprise.
But for the most part this just silently-screams “DRAMA!” Hear him tell his tale. Of never quite being good enough. While achieving far more than almost anyone.
This is just the American Dream being rebranded. His humblebrag isn’t anywhere near as insulting or barbaric as Donald Trump’s but it’s just as carefully groomed, stage-managed.
In the build up to Springsteen on Broadway’s release I listened to his entire catalogue from his debut – through until 2007’s Magic – the three studio releases since are unlistenable and won’t ever be revisited. And I found a few new favourite tunes, sure, but what I found was two genuinely pleasing albums. Nearly perfect for Springsteen’s aims and ambitions. Possibly so good that you wouldn’t need to be any sort of fan to appreciate that a form of lightning had been bottled. A further two albums are good enough, honey they’re in fact tougher than the rest. Everything else is simultaneously over the top and under the whelming. So, was I setting myself up to fail the test of Springsteen on Broadway? The type of fan that screams “BROOOOOOCE!” would of course say yes. But I was deep-diving in anticipation of enjoying this show that so many had raved about. And sure, if you went to it – if you were there – it would offer something special. Of course.
But Broadway’s big broad brushstrokes don’t even hint at the subtlety Bruce might be nearly hinting at in some of his monologues. And if you’ve heard him before you’ve heard this before. As a recorded stage-show it crawled across the finishing line. Tired. Punch-drunk. Elated with its own effort.
Neil Young’s idea of On Broadway was to cover the old Cookies/Crystals/Drifters standard in a howl of feedback that eventually envelops the song, takes it from the middle of the road to the ditch. You wouldn’t ever find ol’ Neil actually “On Broadway”.
As the credits finally rolled on Bruce’s back-pat of a victory lap I had Neil Young’s crunching, punishing riff from his Drifters cover in my head. That was the happiest moment in a snoozefest of failed drama.
The biggest worry about Springsteen on Broadway and Netflix’s capture of it is that it will catch on, creating, without acknowledgment of irony, Cottage-as-Mansion-industry where the super-wealthy musicians that have failed to understand the move to streaming will tell you they finally feel listened to.