Springsteen on Broadway begins without an introduction, cutting immediately to a shot of Bruce Springsteen, now a wiry 69-year-old, standing in front of a microphone, guitar at the ready. He kicks off this recorded version of his Tony-winning Broadway show, which ended its run on Saturday, by talking about the power and responsibility of storytelling and performance, and the role that conviction plays in the art of persuasion. He describes his gift for weaving a spell as “my magic trick.”
That’s a fine summation of all effective storytelling, but it’s also a sly way of telling the buyer to beware. Springsteen, a singer-songwriter whose brand is honesty, is reminding us that ultimately, all of his stories are fiction, made-up collections of images and situations, and that the Netflix special you’re about to watch will be another — maybe the grandest of all, because the narrative he’s constructed concerns his own life, and some elisions and omissions are necessary, otherwise we’d be here all night. It’s a surprisingly meta presentation, at times feeling like as much of a storytelling workshop as a musical autobiography. The parts where Springsteen highlights the difference between the stories that he’s known for telling and who he actually is are the most revealing sections, more frank and unadorned than the genuinely affectionate yet blatantly mythologized portraits of his father, his mother, his hometown of Freehold, New Jersey, and his longtime wife and bandmate Patti Scialfa, who briefly joins him onstage.
He tells us that when he sings of the Dying America — utilizing that specific incarnation of the Springsteen voice — he’s adopting the idealized persona of his father, a factory worker. “I put on a factory worker’s clothes because they were my dad’s clothes,” he explains, en route to performing a version of his dream-apologia “My Father’s House” that’s even more affecting now that Springsteen’s children are probably older than the narrator of the song. “I never worked five days a week until right now,” Springsteen says in his intro, adding, “I’ve never seen the inside of a factory, yet it’s all I ever write about.”
That last part is not really true — Springsteen writes about lots of different kinds of characters, from frustrated writers and bored suburbanites to mobsters, state troopers, homeless people, and migrants. But it’s still a nice, self-deprecating joke on himself and a certain sector of his fan base, which is really only interested in the tales of working-class, white ethnic New Jerseyans who don’t know what to do now that the factories are closed. New York Times stories interviewing die-hard Rust Belt Republicans in diners where the trains don’t run no more strongly evoke early Springsteen songs. Every character on Springsteen’s 1982 masterpiece Nebraska would’ve voted for Trump, had they lived to 2016.
The spirit of Nebraska, a demo tape that ended up being released as an album, hovers over the conception of the stage production as well as the video record of it. It’s stripped to the bones of its back. The star talks and sings and plays piano or guitar and sometimes harmonica, and that’s it. Director Thom Zimny — whose HBO documentary Elvis Presley: The Searcher was an ambitious mixed bag — seems determined to stay out of Springsteen’s way. There’s little personality in the shots, save for a a few long, slow zooms into or away from Springsteen’s face. This is not a movie like Stop Making Sense or Swimming to Cambodia, where the filmmaker joins with the performer to create a hybrid third thing. And yet the plainness of the presentation enhances Springsteen’s magic trick, which consists of taking stories that are encrusted with artifice (as all stories are) and presenting them as if they were being told to you in the form of an anecdote, by a participant who gets to the point and is poetic without necessarily trying to be.
This is Springsteen playing Tom Sawyer, imagining his own funeral service and then attending it. It’s about mortality, reckoning, and legacy. There are points where Springsteen slips into an implied rocking chair and begins sharing cool grandpa wisdom and the special turns into Chicken Soup From the Boss, with a singer-songwriter who always had a knack for cruel irony and fatalism and elliptical endings coming at us all earnest and square, and telling us what he’s learned about life, love, family, the most important things. He quotes Martin Luther King Jr.’s “the long arc of history bends towards justice” by way of expressing outrage over the last two years of politicized cruelty, and says of his stoic, hard-drinking, emotionally withholding father, “Those whose love we wanted but didn’t get, we emulate them.” He says, “We live amongst ghosts always trying to reach us,” and exhorts the audience “to live with compassion, have faith now that what we’re seeing is just one more chapter in the ongoing battle for the soul of the nation.”
The sentiment is Capra-esque, but his expression is troubled and skeptical even when he’s smiling. Like a lot of Springsteen’s music, it’s easy to misread it as entirely hopeful and miss the darker colorations and intimations of doubt, self-doubt, and despair. His duet with Scialfa on “Brilliant Disguise” speaks well of their 31-year marriage: It’s about staying with somebody even though you sometimes doubt whether they, you, and the relationship are entirely real and honest.
The in-medias-res opening gets across the notion of Springsteen as a natural resource or landmark, a splendid, strong thing that has always been there, like a redwood or a hill. The final shot swallows him up in darkness, an image of death and erasure. The lights dim and the show is over. He thumps the body of his guitar so that it sounds like a heartbeat, and after a moment, the heartbeat stops. He, too, shall pass. Only the stories will remain, including the one that he just told you about himself.