Charting the Road to Greatness

HBO’s new Bruce Springsteen documentary shows the creative ascent from rock star to legend

It’s a bit unfair for me to review a documentary about my hero. I’ve seen Bruce Springsteen in concert about 30 times, have put my life on hold to follow him around the country, and my Sirius Radio is usually tuned into the E Street Channel—all Bruce, all the time.

That said, The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town is a must-see not only for Springsteen fans, but for anyone who appreciates the creative process. Because that’s really what this is—a portrait of an artist struggling to get his sound to match what he hears in his head. After a bitter lawsuit with his former manager, the documentary tells how the then post-Born to Run superstar made his music match his ideals.

The film covers the viewpoints of all members of The E Street Band with special attention paid to the relationships between Bruce and his band consigliore Steven Van Zandt, manager Jon Landau, recording engineer Jimmy Iovine and mixer Chuck Plotkin (who was called in to figure out the proper mix after Iovine, Springsteen and Landau hit a creative wall).

Present-day interviews are intercut with incredible home footage from the original, seemingly endless Darkness recording sessions, shot by Barry Rebo. This footage paints a full picture of the creative development that not only changed Springsteen’s music, but truly changed rock ’n’ roll. As Bruce says of Born to Run and Darkness, “I’m beginning to tell the story that I tell for most of the rest of my work life.”

Springsteen and the band have stated that they never thought anyone would ever see Rebo’s footage, so it was as if the camera wasn’t even there. It’s about as honest a documenting of the artistic method as one could hope to watch.

Details abound, not only about the songs that didn’t make the final cut—The Promise, Fire, Because the Night, etc.—but of the ones that did. Watching the history of Badlands, The Promised Land, Racing in the Street, etc., is a both a treat and a history lesson for rock fans.

And as the closing credits play, the modern-day E Street Band blasts through a live performance of Darkness on the Edge of Town in an empty theater, showing why many still consider them the greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world. They recorded the entire album as such as part of the 3 DVD/3 CD Darkness box set coming out in November, which also includes two discs of unreleased tracks, a remastered version of the album, and a live concert video from Houston 1978!

Throughout the documentary, Springsteen talks about the “sound picture.” What do you see when you hear the music? This film creates a clear picture of just how far one artist will go to try to create a masterpiece.

The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town ★★★★★

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