REASON TO WATCH: The making of Bruce Springsteen's fourth album.
WHEN/WHERE: Thursday at 9 p.m. / HBO
One of the great albums of rock and roll history, "Born to Run" had been released in 1975, but a year later, the clouds had rolled in.
Springsteen was in the middle of a legal brawl with both manager and label, which "was a lawsuit about control and who was going to be in control of my work and my work life," he says. "Early on, I decided that would be me." The battle prevented Springsteen from working in a studio, so he retreated to a house in Holmdel, N.J., where he and E Street Band members pounded dozens of new songs, though only nine would make the '78 album, "Darkness on the Edge of Town."
For reasons not explained here, Springsteen allowed pal and groupie Barry Reebo to videotape many of the sessions. In "The Promise," those are supplemented with recent interviews of Springsteen and band members - including, most poignantly, keyboardist Danny Federici, who died of cancer two years ago.
This film is part of a mid-November Columbia release that will include a remastered "Darkness" and some of the shelved songs.
"The Promise" is produced by Thom Zimny, an accomplished film editor and Springsteen's archivist who also was behind 2005's "Wings for Wheels: The Making of 'Born to Run.' " Zimny not only knows the material better than anyone, but he knows the players well, too. The result of that familiarity is a deep, comfortable and genial intimacy in just about every frame.
When Springsteen, Steve Van Zandt, Federici or Max Weinberg say something to the camera, they are almost saying something to a pal. There are no guards put up and, for that reason, I suspect even hard-core Springsteen fans who believe they know absolutely everything there is to know will still find something new here. In 1976, the artist-as-an-intense-young-man was "beginning to tell the story that I've been telling for most of the rest of my work life."
And "more than happy, I wanted to be great." He was not happy. He was near despair, and his work habits seemed clinically flawless examples of the obsessive-compulsive.
"Stick . . . stick . . . stick," he'd bark at Weinberg for days on end because he could hear wood on the drum.
Springsteen could sonically imagine sounds in his head that he couldn't possibly replicate in the makeshift studio, but that didn't stop him from trying - endlessly. You seldom see anyone smile or laugh during these sessions. Wonder why.
Another great album was born during those long-ago years, but you almost wish Zimny was a slightly more omniscient presence at times. For example, not once does anyone mention "Badlands," which was probably the album's biggest hit.
Was the Boss embarrassed by its success? Who knows. Still, a generous and beautiful look into the creative process.