springsteen on broadway review

Netflix’s Springsteen on Broadway brings Bruce Springsteen‘s wildly popular Broadway show to your home, providing one of the year’s best pieces of entertainment. For almost 3 hours, the Boss treads the boards, telling the story of his life in-between performances of some of his best songs. It’s nothing short of a sensation.

“Is that you baby/ Or just a brilliant disguise?”

– Bruce Springsteen, “Brilliant Disguise”

Bruce Springsteen takes center stage, literally, in Springsteen on Broadway, a beginning-to-end filmed performance of the Boss’ constantly sold-out Broadway show. There are no frills here. No behind-the-scenes moments. And nothing has been cut down. This is literally the entire show – which will likely be a comfort to the many, many people unable to pay exorbitant amounts of dough to attain nearly unattainable tickets.

For nearly three hours, Springsteen jokes, rails, wails, and yes, plays his heart out, providing an achingly raw, often disarmingly honest breakdown of his life, from Jersey shore childhood all the way into his current status as an elder statesman of rock-n-roll. Anyone who’s heard even one of Springsteen’s songs knows he’s a born storyteller, and Springsteen on Broadway cements that, tenfold. The man can talk. There’s not a single dull moment here. You’ll hang on every grunty, grumbly word that issues from Springsteen’s mouth. It’s hypnotic, engrossing, and one of the most amazing things you’ll watch – not just in this year, but in any year to come. Sorry, Hugh Jackman – Bruce Springsteen is officially the greatest showman.

This is no rock concert. And while late in the show, the familiar fan-cries of “Bruuuuuuuuce!” can be heard rising up from the audience, Springsteen on Broadway is far removed from a Springsteen concert. I once saw the Boss play a somewhat similar show in Philadelphia, where he stood alone on stage and played mostly acoustic, slowed-down version of rarities and B-sides. But even that show, with its audience packed to the rafters, still had the feeling of a concert. Springsteen on Broadway is more intimate; more raw. We’re not watching Springsteen entertain (although he is doing that) – we’re watching him lay his soul bare.

Or are we?

While Springsteen’s performance here never once feels false, or staged, or rehearsed, it’s still a performance. It’s something he did, almost word for word, beat for beat, every night for months. He’s playing a part. It’s the part he’s been playing his entire career, and he’s not afraid to tell us up front.

“I have become absurdly successful writing about something that I have no knowledge of,” he says at the jump. “I’ve never seen the inside of a factory, and it’s all I’ve ever written about.” He also adds he’s never worked a 9 to 5-style job…until now, with the Broadway show. “I don’t like it,” he wryly tosses off.

As Springsteen on Broadway shows us, the Boss is drawing on moments in his life with his songs. But like any good storyteller, he’s also embellishing. Punching things up. Making them better. “I made it all up,” he says. “That’s how good I am.”

Starting off like this could’ve backfired horribly, and left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth for the rest of the show. But Springsteen is so charming, so goddamn funny, that it works. We laugh along with him as he laughs at how he’s essentially suckered us all these years. He’s lied to us – and we love him for it.

Springsteen isn’t shy about calling a lie a lie, but he also has a much better, kinder phrase for what he does: he calls it a magic trick. I couldn’t help but think of the line about magic tricks from Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige: “Now you’re looking for the secret, but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled.”

springsteen on broadway netflix

After the attention-grabbing intro, Springsteen launches into an easy-to-follow format: he’ll tell a story about his life, and then perform a song that relates to the story he just told. These are stripped-down covers of some of his most famous songs, spanning his entire career, and every single one sounds astonishing. Even if you’ve heard “Born in the U.S.A.” hundreds of times (and you have), nothing can quite prepare you for the bluesy, painful way Springsteen performs it here (after telling a story about how he managed to dodge the draft during the Vietnam War), in the voice of a man who is damned. It’s like you’re hearing it for the very first time.

Every moment of the show is glorious, but there are standouts. Springsteen’s story about his father (accompanied by “My Father’s House”, of course) is so tender, so earnest, that Springsteen’s old man essentially becomes our own fathers. We can picture him clearly in our minds – we can graft his experiences onto our own dads. “All we know about manhood is what we have learned and what we have seen from our fathers,” the Boss says, and then immediately adds: “And my father was my hero, and my greatest foe.” He closes this segment out with a haunting story about a dream he once had. In the dream, he and his father were in the crowd of a concert. And up on the stage was a man on fire. “That man on stage,” the dream Springsteen says to his dream father, “That’s how I see you.” And then the lights in the theater go out. Chills.

Springsteen brings up his father later in the show, as well, telling a story about how his old man drove hundreds of miles to visit Springsteen when he was on the verge of having a son of his won, and essentially apologize for being such a bad dad. Springsteen weeps during this story before launching into “Long Time Coming,” and you’ll likely weep too, unless you have a heart of stone.

Another moment that brings Bruce to tears is when he reflects on the Big Man – Clarence Clemons, the saxophone player of the E Street Band, who died in 2011. “He was elemental to my life,” Springsteen says, taking a break from playing “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” “And losing him was like losing the rain.” Losing him was like losing the rain. Such a simple sentence, and yet it breaks your heart to hear it said out loud, with such grief, such loss, such reflection. We can all relate to this sentiment. We all have losses in our lives.

These highlights make Springsteen on Broadway sound like an exercise in misery. It’s not – it’s full of life, and often outrageously funny (if this rock star thing hadn’t worked out, Springsteen would’ve made a killer comedian).

Late in the show, Springsteen’s wife Patti Scialfa comes out to perform two songs with him, and the sexual tension between the two of them is so palpable that it might knock you for a loop. When the couple get up close to one microphone to share a verse, it almost feels voyeuristic, like we’re spying on Mr. and Mrs. Boss during a highly intimate moment.

Director Thom Zimny shoots the show in a matter-of-fact way – the camera fixed on Springsteen on stage, following him from a guitar to a piano and back again. Every now and then, Zimny will cut to an over-head shot, as if we’re suddenly up in the balcony looking down. Beyond this, though, the visual style of Springsteen is plain – and that’s fine. There’s no need for anything fancy here – Springsteen and his act are all we need.

As Springsteen on Broadway draws to a close, and Springsteen brings what he calls his “long and noisy prayer” to an end, you’ll be longing for more, but you won’t be unsatisfied. You’ll be rejuvenated – born again. Aglow. The magic trick is over, for now. But the magic trick never ends. And even though Springsteen has spent the entire show showing us how he does that magic trick, you’ll still want to come back for more. You want to be fooled.

***

Springsteen on Broadway debuts on Netflix on December 16, 2018.

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