“Springsteen on Broadway” — the Netflix filmed version of Bruce Springsteen’s wildly successful autobiographical Broadway show — opens with a tight shot of his face.
It’s a smart move. Not only does it show that the filmed version, directed by longtime Springsteen collaborator Thom Zimny, plans to offer a different experience than the one lucky Broadway showgoers enjoyed, it also makes clear what the show is about. This isn’t going to be a couple of hours with The Boss, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who fills stadiums with fans screaming along with “Born to Run.” This is a rare opportunity to spend time with the man.
“This is what I’ve presented to you all these years as my long and noisy prayer, as my magic trick,” Springsteen says onstage. “And like all good magic tricks it begins with a setup.”
“Springsteen on Broadway” is all about the “setup,” about how Springsteen became The Boss and what that has meant to him. It’s no wonder fans jumped at the opportunity to see the “setup,” especially in the intimate setting of the 975-seat Walter Kerr Theatre, and were willing to pay up to $850 (and even more if they went to scalpers) to do it. And Springsteen did not disappoint.
“Those whose love we wanted but didn’t get, we emulate them,” he reveals in the show. “It is our only way to get it. So when it came time, I chose my father’s voice because there was something sacred in it to me . . . All we know about manhood is what we have learned from our fathers. And my father was my hero, and my greatest foe.”
So much of rock and roll is built through artifice, crafting larger-than-life personas through smoke and mirrors. Like his surprising autobiography “Born to Run,” “Springsteen on Broadway” seeks to tear down “The Boss” persona by showing its seams.
“I was born to run — not to stay,” Springsteen says, noting that he lives about 10 minutes away from where he grew up in Freehold, New Jersey. Later, the rocking champion of the working man jokes, “I’ve never worked five days a week until right now . . . I don’t like it.”
It’s a remarkable bit of honesty that the filmed version magnifies. Though the show’s Broadway run ends on Dec. 15 after grossing nearly $110 million, the Netflix version, which debuts on Dec. 16, is designed to live on, not just as a way for all those who were unable to catch the show in person, but to tell the story in a slightly different way. There are times when it’s so quiet you can hear Springsteen’s boots on the stage. There are close-ups of Springsteen’s hands on the piano or his face as he tells a story that bring the viewer closer than an audience member could ever manage.
The most stunning example is when a close-up shows tears welling up in Springsteen’s eyes as he talks about an unexpected visit from his father, Doug, shortly before Springsteen and his wife, Patti Scialfa, gave birth to their first son, Evan.
“You’ve been very good to us,” Springsteen says onstage. “And I wasn’t very good to you.”
The camera doesn’t move from Springsteen’s face, as he says, “It was the greatest moment in my life with my dad. And it was all that I needed.”
“Here in the last days before I was to become a father, my own father was visiting me, to warn me of the mistakes that he had made, and to warn me not to make them with my own children,” Springsteen continues, “to release them from the chain of our sins, my father’s and mine, that they may be free to make their own choices and to live their own lives.”
That moment has far more impact in the filmed version than it did live onstage — partly because Springsteen didn’t always deliver those lines as emotionally and partly because even if he did, few in the theater would have been able to see it.
At the show, there are so many other fascinating points to focus on, from the sweet way Springsteen describes his mother, Adele, or the gorgeous way he harmonizes with Scialfa on “Tougher Than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise.” Those moments are still in the Netflix version, as are his lovely tribute to the late Clarence Clemons on “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and the stunning story behind the angry version of “Born in the U.S.A.”
But it’s clear Springsteen has a different plan for the Netflix version.
“DNA is a big part of what the show is about: turning yourself into a free agent, or, as much as you can, into an adult, for lack of a better word,” Springsteen told Esquire. “It’s a coming-of-age story, and I want to show how this — one’s coming of age — has to be earned. It’s not given to anyone. It takes a certain single-minded purpose. It takes self-awareness, a desire to go there. And a willingness to confront all the very fearsome and dangerous elements of your life — your past, your history — that you need to confront to become as much of a free agent as you can. This is what the show is about . . . It’s me reciting my ‘Song of Myself.’”
“Springsteen on Broadway” does have that link to poet Walt Whitman. It also pays tribute to so many one-man (and woman) Broadway shows.
But more than anything else, it shows that Springsteen is a free agent, boldly telling his own story as honestly as he can. The Netflix version may not quite compete with the singular experience of seeing the show in person, but it certainly comes close.
WHAT “Springsteen on Broadway”
WHEN|WHERE Starts streaming at 3:01 a.m. Dec. 16, Netflix
Though “Springsteen on Broadway” is by far the most personal project of Bruce Springsteen’s career, he has put together intriguing video projects before. Here’s a look at some of the best:
LIVE IN BARCELONA (2003) The concert film from “The Rising” tour mixes his poignant reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks with uplifting classics from throughout his career to balance the mood.
MEMORABLE MOMENT The final encore of “Thunder Road” with thousands of Spaniards singing every word with Springsteen is especially moving.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: VH1 STORYTELLERS (2005) The special filmed at Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, featured Springsteen talking about the recording process for his “Devils & Dust” album and how the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Iraqi War made “the personal and political collide.”
MEMORABLE MOMENT The way his solo version of “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” brought a sense of hope to a relatively dark discussion.
LONDON CALLING: LIVE IN HYDE PARK (2010) Springsteen & The E Street Band’s performance at the massive Hard Rock Calling Festival features unexpected versions of some of his early influences, including Jimmy Cliff’s “Trapped,” The Young Rascals’ “Good Lovin’” and Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times (Come Again No More).”
MEMORABLE MOMENT The hard-hitting version of The Clash’s “London Calling” sets the tone for the entire concert. — GLENN GAMBOA