Moments before I pressed play on my Netflix screener of Springsteen On Broadway, Thom Zimny’s concert film premiering Sunday, I felt some unexpected trepidation. I had been lucky enough to score an absurdly good ticket to the Boss’ hugely successful one-man show — fourth row center! — the month it opened in October 2017, and was blown away. “Is it a concert? A play? Performance art? Whatever you call it, Springsteen On Broadway is one of the best shows I’ve ever seen,” I gasped in my lengthy review, like the Bruce fanboy I undeniably am.
How could a filmed version possibly compare? In person, Springsteen On Broadway (which finally wraps its historic run at the Walter Kerr Theatre at the end of this week) was overwhelming for its uncommon intimacy. In the Springsteen-iverse, the illusion of closeness is afforded strictly by proxy on folkie, pared-back detours like Nebraska and The Ghost Of Tom Joad. Prior to Springsteen On Broadway, I had never viewed him from any nearer than 100 feet. From that vantage, even a rock god appears to be only six inches tall. On Broadway, thrillingly, he was suddenly life-size and right there.
During the two-and-a-half hour show, which intersperses music with homilies drawn from Springsteen’s life, I found myself continually choking up at the mere sound of Springsteen’s relatively hushed, conversational voice. I was used to hearing my hero scream over the E Street Band and 50,000 Brooooooooce-ing fanatics. But the miracle of seeing Springsteen On Broadway in the flesh is that it made Springsteen suddenly much more dynamic, like a high-dimension image that’s exponentially higher than 1080p.
A particularly emotional moment came during an extended monologue about his hometown of Freehold, in which he reminisced about the things about your home that you only romanticize when you know they’re gone forever — the clanging sounds from the regional rug mill, the omnipresent smell of the local Nescafé plant, the dead-end bars that function as receptacles for broken people with dashed dreams. And then, inevitably, he played a song I’ve heard approximately 5,321 times, “My Hometown” from Born In The USA. Only now it was as if I was hearing it for the first time — Bruce sat at a piano and softly sang the words, gently tamping down his iconic sandpaper huskiness, like it was a bedtime lullaby. As if Bruce was your dad, imparting wisdom.
In moments like these, Springsteen engaged his audience in ways that are impossible in an arena, even for the most accomplished arena-rocker of all-time. How in the hell can a Bruce Springsteen fan be expected to hold it together through that?
On Netflix, Springsteen is downgraded back to 1080p. And, like listening to a bootleg of your favorite concert, there are times when Springsteen On Broadway suffers a little in translation. For one, the experience itself obviously is less focused. When 1.5 billion hours of Office reruns are just one click away, it’s hard to imagine many viewers having the patience to watch a 69-year-old man talk for 153 minutes.
Other shortcomings are hardwired into the piece itself. In person, one of my favorite sections of Springsteen On Broadway occurred when Springsteen’s wife and bandmate, Patti Scialfa, guested on two songs from Tunnel Of Love, “Tougher Than The Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise.” But revisiting these performances in the Netflix special made me wish that Springsteen would’ve ceded more to Patti. In the show, Zimny inserts shots of Patti stoically looking on while Bruce talks (and talks) philosophically about marriage. He is, as always, eloquent and insightful, though noticeably little less candid than he is about his parents or his own naked ambition, artistic and otherwise.