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The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town

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Wednesday, Nov 17, 2010
Bruce Springsteen's Darkness therapy. The stakes are remarkably high and the film is reminiscent of the Beatles' Let It Be, as we glimpse a band under the pressure of expectations.
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The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town

Director: Thom Zimny
Cast: Bruce Springsteen, Steve Van Zandt, Jon Landau

(US theatrical: 7 Oct 2010; 2010)

It’s almost impossible to imagine Bruce Springsteen’s predicament back in 1977. Two years earlier, Springsteen and the E Street Band released the epic Born to Run, arguably the greatest rock album of all time. The record had everything: great hooks on every track, lyrical beauty, and in its two cornerstone pieces, “Backstreets” and “Jungleland”, a sweeping operatic majesty. The album was mythic urban romance writ large. But after that big noise, silence. A lawsuit from the band’s manager, Mike Appel, prevented Springsteen from recording for close to three years, an eternity in the ‘70s music industry. By 1978, Springsteen was the invisible man in American music.


The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town is a documentary of Springsteen and the E-Street Band recording their 1978 album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, the crucial follow-up to Born to Run (for brevity and clarity, I’ll refer to the documentary as The Promise and the album as simply Darkness). The stakes are remarkably high and the film is reminiscent of the Beatles’ Let It Be, as we glimpse a band under the pressure of expectations. Darkness is a flawed album, and The Promise reveals why. Back in the studio after years of exile, Springsteen is determined to make an album that reflects the betrayal and disappointment of the last three years. The documentary shows Springsteen and the E-Street band in the studio, banging out song after song, take after take. It’s fascinating to see Springsteen and his band mates at the zenith of their powers.
  
There are great tracks on Darkness, like “Candy’s Room”, where the narrator confesses his love for a prostitute: “Strangers from the city / Call my baby’s number and bring her toys / But she knows I want to be…Candy’s boy / There’s a sadness hidden in that pretty face / A sadness all her own / From which no man can keep Candy safe”. The song begins as a whispered murmur, nearly a prayer, then turns into a blistering rocker. The lyrics work on many levels: Candy can also be Springsteen, a desired object of adulation and hype, both of which disappear quickly. Another terrific track is “Promised Land”, that later became a constant staple at Springsteen shows. The two side closers, “Racing in the Streets” and the title track are perfect expressions of the album’s twin themes of loss and coming to terms with disappointment.


Yet there are too many throwaway tracks that cover the same ground. “Adam Raised a Cain”,  “Something in the Night”, and “Factory” are merely dull and rehash the same themes. This constant repetition undermines Darkness and robs it of vitality.


The documentary also reveals the road not taken, and how good the album could have been. Springsteen wrote “Because the Night” for Darkness, a torch song of remarkable power: “Desire is hunger is the fire I breathe / Love is a banquet on which we feed”. Springsteen inexplicably hands over the best song of the Darkness sessions to Patti Smith, who turns “Because the Night” into a hit single. It’s great fun to see Springsteen and guitarist Steve Van Zandt rehearsing “Sherry Darling”, a pop song of sheer joy that was cut and later released on The River. Another cast off is the brilliant slow-burner, “Fire” that became a hit for the Pointer Sisters. Why, why, why were these terrific songs thrown away or canned for the next album?  There’s a common conceit among Springsteen followers: Springsteen is such a prolific songwriter that he can discard great songs because he has an endless supply of them. Darkness is a prime example of his limitations.


Over time, the sessions become strained. For hours on end, an unhappy Springsteen intones “Stick, stick, stick”, to his drummer Max Weinberg. The drums never sound right, and Weinberg spends countless hours on retakes. Throughout The Promise, Springsteen displays tunnel vision and falls into a self-indulgent trap.


Van Zandt is the unlikely hero of the film as he lobbies to up-tempo the Darkness tracks. Although he’s a lesser artist than Springsteen, Van Zandt senses that the album has gone astray and tries to push Springsteen in a new direction. Van Zandt is shut down by co-producer Jon Landau, who simply agrees with whatever Springsteen wants to do. “Because the Night” and “Fire” are tossed away to other artists while “Sherry Darling” is buried till the next album. “It’s a bit tragic”, Van Zandt admits when discussing the songs that were cut from the album.


In The Promise Springsteen’s artistic vision is distorted by anger and bitterness and his work is marred by self-pity. The end result of these remarkable sessions is an uneven, repetitive album that doesn’t resonate and still puzzles some of Springsteen’s most devoted fans. The documentary is intended to be a celebration of Springsteen’s work. Instead it’s a compelling artifact of failure by a great artist in distress.


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