By Eric Plaag
I love it when artists grow up, when they get past the need to impress and flaunt with their personae and public showmanship, and instead get down to the business of talking about process and significance for them, since in the long run—in many respects—these details are what tell us the most about why their art works so effectively upon the rest of us. So, it was with some tempered delight that I looked forward to viewing Bruce Springsteen open up about his work in the recent documentary The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town (2010), even though I am not particularly a fan and have sometimes found his popularity mystifying. Covering, as the title implies, the making of his follow-up album to Born to Run, The Promise dispenses with rockumentary formulae pretty quickly, preferring to enter the artist’s head rather than watching him preen and prance about for the first half of the film, as might typically happen. “It was a reckoning with the adult world,” Springsteen admits of the Darkness several minutes into the film, “with a life of limitation and compromise, but also a life of resilience and commitment to life, to the breath in your lungs. How do I keep faith with those things? How do I honor those things?”
Lest you think this is some weary retrospective of Springsteen musing on the good old days when he was still a naive kid, trust me, it’s not. Instead, what I learned from The Promise is that Bruce Springsteen grew up as an artist sometime in, oh, about 1977, and this impressive story of their struggles in the years after the phenomenal success of Born to Run demonstrates that with nearly every frame. Shunning the conventional band documentary style that typically highlights a group’s hijinks, relationships, internal drama, and often irritating self-indulgence, The Promise is exactly that—it delivers on what it promises out of the gate by telling the story of an album that nearly didn’t get made. Relying primarily on archival in-studio footage from 1977-78, the years during which The Boss and the E Street Band labored through production of what may be, in fact, Springsteen’s most important album from a creative perspective, The Promise chronicles Springsteen’s emergence from a protracted lawsuit with his former manager that paralyzed the band’s ability to create new material, as well as the creative process behind Springsteen’s genius both during that lawsuit and after it had finally concluded in his favor.
“It was a lawsuit about control,” Springsteen explains early in the film, “and at that time I felt like I had no life.” Since his legal battles with former manager and once close friend Mike Appel meant that he couldn’t record anything, Springsteen took the band on the road to keep them fresh and try out new material, performing where they could in spite of Appel’s efforts to limit his appearances. The strain on Springsteen and the rest of the band was palpable in their performances, and their new music began to take on a darker, less commercial tone. There were, it turns out, good reasons for this, beyond even the specter of that lawsuit. The success of Born to Run and the expectations that success brought with it served as a clarion call to Springsteen not to lose his bearings. “That’s where a lot of the people I admired drifted away from the essential things that had made them great,” Springsteen insists midway through the film. “More than rich, more than famous, more than happy, I wanted to be great.”
Once back in the studio in 1977, after a two-year hiatus, Springsteen and the band worked feverishly to produce material that captured the sense of “life in the close confines of the towns I grew up in,” relying upon creating a visual association for the listener of a “vast cinematic landscape,” rather than simply blowing them away with the Phil Spector-influenced “wall of sound” approach that had guided rock and roll for the preceding fifteen years. In the process, Springsteen wrote more than 70 songs for Darkness, knowing that he would only keep ten or so, as compared to the nine he wrote for Born to Run (eight of which appeared on the album). Some of these songs written for Darkness ended up on later albums (The River or Tracks), while others were either sold or given away to other musicians. Among them was “Because the Night,” Patti Smith’s huge hit. Springsteen dismissed it from the roster of songs for Darkness because it was a love song, something that never would have fit with the “ominous,” “relentless,” and “angrier” sound he sought. “It’s a bit tragic,” band member Steve Van Zandt notes at one point of Springsteen’s prodigious output, “because [if he had released all of those songs], he would have been one of the great pop songwriters of all time.”
Producer and archival footage director Barry Rebo uses footage from those Darkness studio sessions to let us function as flies on the wall, watching Springsteen anguish over both lyrics and musical riffs as he builds the album that will chart a different path for him as a performing artist and indeed one day make him great. But as interspliced interview footage with Springsteen and members of the band also documents (masterfully seamed together by director and producer Thom Zimny), making Darkness was very much an arduous collaborative effort, perhaps in a greater sense than many other rock and roll albums the screen has allowed us to see being made. The film struggles at times with its presumption that anyone watching must necessarily be familiar with Springsteen’s career, his bandmates, and his discography, and there is the ever-pervading (and ultimately unanswered) question of why that archival footage was being shot in the first place and how the presence of an earlier documentarian might have shaped the behavior of Springsteen and the band. Ultimately, though, The Promise is a fascinating and riveting exploration of the creative process and artistic maturation of an American musical icon, one that fans of either Bruce Springsteen or American rock and roll in general should make a point to track down.
DVD, 4 out of 5 stars