Netflix’s Springsteen On Broadway sets a new standard for concert films

There’s a unique kind of intimacy to sitting in a theater with 974 other people in total silence, no one so much as checking the time on their phones for fear of being kicked out of the venue. That’s the aura inside New York’s Walter Kerr Theater when attending a Springsteen On Broadway performance, a fact I am lucky enough to be able to present here. Other artists have instituted anti-phone policies at their shows, often as a precautionary measure to keep new material from being leaked out into the world, but with Bruce Springsteen, this practice was in service of something else. Sitting in the dark, Springsteen ambled onto stage, guitar in hand, then immediately subverted expectations by simply not playing a song. Instead, he jumped into an origin story, allowing it to stretch out for a few minutes as people hung on his every word. There was no vamping, no raucous “One! Two! Three! Four!,” no extended band intros, no spectacle. There’s just a man, one often viewed as a great American myth, showing you, once and for all, that he’s human.

Translating the energy in that room was always going to be the biggest challenge for Netflix in bringing Springsteen On Broadway to the service. Springsteen is a natural performer, and the rave reviews for the residency ensured that the material wasn’t a concern, but how does one bring cameras into such a space and not feel like they’re imposing? The hushed, churchlike reverence inside Walter Kerr is what made the show a destination event for fans from across the globe, and while having it easily accessible on Netflix is much more convenient, is it possible to translate the performance’s true power? Perhaps more importantly, is it in service of what Springsteen has spent the bulk of this decade trying to express?

Springsteen has always had a deep vault of unreleased material, and when he released The Promise in 2010, effectively shining light on the tortured process of making 1978’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town, it started to feel like he was beginning to tie up loose ends. From there, his classic albums began getting reissues, more unreleased material came spilling out, and he began doing full-album tours. Then, of course, came his memoir, Born To Run. In a few short years, the legendary musician, the one who had spent years self-mythologizing, was now opening up. All of those pursuits have shown a part of Springsteen that he’s long kept hidden, and with Springsteen On Broadway, he effectively removes all the remaining barriers.

In the middle of a stage, in plain, black clothes, Springsteen lays himself bare. The show opens with what is basically a 10-minute version of “Growing Up,” as he extends the bridge to bring out more of his story, weaving it into the song and stopping dead to talk frankly with his audience. This sets the stage for what’s to come, as Springsteen slowly begins to dismantle his own legend. And while he’s still very much performing up on that stage, there appears to be a genuine desire to rectify who he is with how his audience has viewed him.

In the early going of Springsteen On Broadway, he makes reference to his “magic trick,” something that he’s used time and again over the course of his 40-year career. And fittingly, he exposes it here, calling bullshit on every single fabrication that people have taken as gospel. As he puts it, “Mr. Born To Run” still lives a 10-minute drive from his hometown, he couldn’t drive when he wrote “Racing In The Street,” and perhaps most importantly, he never worked nine-to-five in his life. To some, this could read like the admission from a life-long grifter, a ploy to rid his conscience of all that nagging guilt before it’s too late. But in reality, it shows Springsteen as an artist, one capable of taking the stories of his family, friends, or neighbors and injecting them with the rich, lived-in details that would make his songs resonate so deeply with his audience.

The camera work in this early going is a bit manic, cutting between shots in a way that feels more like a comedy special than a modern take on VH1 Storytellers. But slowly, the pace settles, allowing for Springsteen to lock eyes with the camera and talk directly to the people on the other side. The joy of Springsteen On Broadway, both live and taped, is that it feels like a long, unbroken take. Unlike his arena-sized rock shows, here Springsteen allows viewers to see the seams in his work, even if it manifests in such minor actions as him switching guitars or walking over to the piano. One of the hardest things to bring into this taped version is how Springsteen wanders around the stage, often talking away from the microphone and letting his voice carry through the small theater unaided. While it creates a handful of dips in the audio, it aids the special in that it demands full attention. At any second, Springsteen may stop a song, drop a joke, or go off on a tangent, yet each detour ends up feeling essential to the show’s personal touch.

At two and a half hours, Springsteen On Broadway is no casual undertaking. While it could be viewed as a fans-only affair, there are moments so evocative that they could make even life-long detractors give his work a second look. His performance of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” the joyous Born To Run track that serves as the E Street Band’s origin story, breaks down into a touching tribute to the late Clarence “Big Man” Clemons. By now, a few E Street members have died, and the effect it has had on Springsteen is palpable. When he’s discussing the people he’s lost—be it Clemons or his father—the subtext running under all of it is that he’s been forced to face his own mortality, and this show is a part of that process.

As a result, Springsteen On Broadway doesn’t feel like cheap wish fulfillment for fans, but instead acknowledgment of the symbiotic relationship between performer and audience. Like many of the all-time great concert films, Springsteen On Broadway is no substitute for being in the room, but it’s power transcends any perceived limitations. Springsteen On Broadway sets a standard for all musicians entering their twilight years, as the man up on stage offers his most moving work in a catalog full of them.

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