Friday, May 27, 2011
MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SPRINGSTEEN - THE PROMISE DVD
Well, it was inevitable that the centerpiece film from last year's expensive boxed set examining the Darkness album and outtakes would be hived off and sold separately at some point. It's a bit of an annoyance for fans, as they shell out for these exclusives, and then they ain't so exclusive anymore. Plus, they stick bonus features on this separate version, so even if you have the big $150 box, you don't have everything. Springsteen is the master of this tactic, and has been making his hard-core fans shell out twice and three times for cut variations on discs since the Born In The U.S.A. splurge of seven singles and their many b-sides. Okay, gripe over.
So what you're getting here is the highly-praised feature film that debuted at the Toronto Film Festival last year, a 90-minute documentary on the making of Springsteen's beloved 1978 album. If you're not familiar with the back story, Springsteen had become a huge star in 1975 with Born To Run, but there was a problem backstage. He'd fallen out with his manager and producer, Mike Appel, and planned on continuing his new partnership with Jon Landau, who had done most of Born To Run. But Appel had him locked into a tough contract, giving him say over who produced him, and half of his music publishing. Springsteen was barred from the studio while a major lawsuit unfolded for close to two years. Finally it ended much in Springsteen's favour, and now he had two years of ideas and frustrations to get on tape, plus a career to get back on track.
Luckily, when they did get back in the studio, cameras were there on some days, enough to give us the great base of a behind-the-scenes film. All the principals were interviewed, including Appel, recently reconciled with Springsteen, putting aside decades of bitterness. What we find out is that the band went from one nightmare to another once they entered the studio. It took months, as the group, obsessed by individual sounds, couldn't find the right ambience, reverb, echo, whatever. In hindsight, the group admits it was a fiasco, and Springsteen takes the blame for spending day after day chasing elusive, impossible big sounds.
Gradually, the songs started to take shape, and more and more joined the pile, literally dozens of different numbers. Now Springsteen had to decide what would go and what would stay. He was looking for a theme, a leaner and darker album than Born To Run, with songs about small towns and broken hearts. He would scrap finished songs, pull out a line, and stick it in another. There's a marvelous scene where the filmmaker shows how an early song, Come On Let's Go Out Tonight gets scavenged for the released cut Factory.
There's lots of fun, laid-back moments caught on tape, the band mugging for the camera, but not really caring about what gets captured. There are great moments with Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt, playing versions of wonderful, potential hits that got tossed away. We see them as real friends, boys being boys, but also there are lots of moments of frustration, Springsteen appearing as a control freak. And we understand why he is this way, as driven an artist as any writer or painter, having to lead this talented gang in a tough but loving way, heading toward a goal only he can here.
Other famous Springsteen moments are touched on, including how Bruce teamed up with Patti Smith (interviewed here) to write Because The Night. We find out why Fire was rejected because it was an obvious hit he didn't want to be represented by, and given to The Pointer Sisters. All great stuff. The film starts to drag in the second half as Springsteen explains his philosophy, what he wanted to say about family, America, fear and sin. It's impressive he works that hard on these final versions, but as Miami Steve would think, the throwaway pop songs were just as good. The album finally came out, after years of frustration, and although it became loved over time, at first it was a bit of a disappointment, without an obvious hit. But they hit the road, won over the crowds, and now we recognize Racing In The Streets, Prove It All Night, The Promised Land and the rest as classics.
So, get this DVD, it's a great look at a pivotal moment in Springsteen's career, and an excellent film, a ton of resources went into it from Springsteen's camp. You'll never get a critical look this way, it's ultimately controlled by Bruce Inc., but who gives a crap, it's just rock music. For everybody who ever wanted to know what it was like to hang with Bruce and the band, you'll know a lot more after this.