If you’re any kind of music fan at all, you’ll want to see “The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town.” This new film gives us a fascinating glimpse of Bruce Springsteen in 1977, when he was in the midst of making the pivotal, post-“Born to Run” album that established him as more than just a one-hit Time and Newsweek cover boy wonder. The documentary, made by Thom Zimny, will debut on HBO on Oct. 7. I got a chance to see it the other night at Sony Music, which is housed in CAA’s old Beverly Hills headquarters.
Half the fun was seeing all the old Springsteen fans on hand, including the likes of New Line chief Toby Emmerich, who got his start working at Atlantic Records, and my old pal, longtime Sony soundtracks guru Glen Brunman, who took me backstage to meet Springsteen when I was just a hopelessly dopey college kid. I’m no longer a starry-eyed Springsteen fan, having been underwhelmed by much of his recent work. But he was at the top of his game when he was making “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” which as the documentary makes clear, was the work of an artist determined to make his mark. Or as Springsteen says of his youthful self in a present-day interview in the film: “More than being rich or famous or happy, I wanted to be great.”
The film is punctuated with recent interviews with Springsteen, his longtime manager Jon Landau and the rest of the E Street Band. But what makes it worth seeing is the extensive footage of Springsteen and Co. at work in the studio, the Boss almost always clad in a white T-shirt, involved in the often-agonizing process of making the “Darkness” album. After the success of “Born to Run,” Springsteen became embroiled in a dispute with his former manager, Mike Appel, which had prevented him from recording a new album for nearly two years — an eternity in that era. So Springsteen and the band rehearsed and worked on new material every night until the lawsuit was settled and they could go back into the studio.
The film offers a rare look at an artist trying to establish an identity while also attempting to come to terms with his own ambition. Springsteen acknowledges viewing success as a dark cloud, since stardom was cutting him off from his deep, bar-band, working-class roots, which were exactly what provided the fuel for his success in the first place. So how did he survive?
Watching him in the studio recording “Darkness,” Springsteen reminded me of a lot of young filmmakers that I’ve seen at work — apparently it’s a common artistic trait to feel the need to keep tight control of the decision-making process without ever actually committing to a decision. Springsteen had written untold dozens of songs, but he had such trouble picking a final lineup for the album that the band members would regularly bet on which ones he’d keep and which ones would get bumped. Even the film’s title is something of a sly joke, since “The Promise” was a song that Springsteen spent three months recording, and then yanked from the record, saying in retrospect that he was too close to it.
Still, Springsteen’s writing process is pretty fascinating. He would take a verse or a riff from one song in his notebook and graft it onto another song, likening it to how a mechanic would pull parts out of one car to make another one run. “Because the Night” — one of Springsteen’s most commercial songs — was a product of these sessions. But it was left off the record because, as Springsteen now tells it, he was “too cowardly” to really write a love song, so he gave it to Patti Smith, who completed the lyrics and had her only big hit with it.
The movie has its share of light touches, including a comical sequence in which we see Springsteen, ever the perfectionist, obsessing for days over how to properly record Max Weinberg’s drum sound. But as with so many films that show us our icons in their youth, the best moments allow us to see an artist exploring and experimenting with his gifts, trying to figure out what kind of artist he wants to be.
At the time of “Darkness,” Springsteen was so young and strikingly handsome (and full of inner turmoil) that it’s easy to see why filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese thought he could have been a terrific actor. When he’s in the studio, soulfully singing one of his heart-breaking ballads, Springsteen has just as much live-wire charisma as the young DeNiro or Pacino. But Springsteen only wanted to be a rock star, and the biggest joy anyone can get from this film is seeing just how hard he worked to fulfill that promise.