Bruce Springsteen’s Netflix special finds the Boss in full giving mode. (Kevin Mazur/Netflix)
By Chris Richards
Pop music critic
In what feels like an attempt to give every last atom of himself to everybody who might want a piece, Bruce Springsteen crash-landed on Broadway last year, eager to tell his life story in hollered prose and knowing balladry. Then, after 236 engagements, he wrapped it up on Sunday by releasing a film on Netflix compiled from two July performances. And look, here he is in the palm of your hand, describing the intimacies of his extraordinary life — in one stunning moment, through tears.
What compels a guy who has already dumped so much blood, sweat and saline into the ancient river of rock-and-roll to seek out new ways to expose himself? Springsteen never says it outright here, but he clearly knows that time is a cruel and unstoppable force. According to his songbook, time takes everything away — your innocence, your job down at the factory — until it finally takes you. Springsteen’s countervailing mission is to give. He knows he’ll run out of time someday, but until then, he’s determined not to run out of himself.
That makes him something of a renewable resource and a real-deal folk hero to his flock — and when this whole thing kicked off inside Manhattan’s Walter Kerr Theatre in October 2017, audiences couldn’t get over how larger-than-life he appeared up on that cozy stage. Wait until you see him on the screen of your iPhone. Currently 69 years old and craggily handsome, Springsteen has the kind of face that we only ever see on coins. Add his macadam rasp and his permanent squint, and every word that tumbles out of his mouth practically glows with an aura of profundity.
Too bad, then, that he conspicuously reads his monologues — about childhood, parenthood, God and war — from ankle-high teleprompters, his head frequently bowed, as if his footwear is about to reveal the meaning of life. As for articulating the grand mysteries of music, he gets close. Early on, he explains how rock-and-roll taught an entire generation that “fun was your birthright.” When it comes to describing the second half of the 20th century in four words, that’s pretty good.
Later, Springsteen describes a band as “a communion of souls,” which is a lovely phrase, but one that could also technically apply to your bowling league. But when he describes a rock concert as an opportunity “to be reminded of things, to be reminded of who [we] are,” it feels like a siren should go off, confetti flurrying from the rafters. That’s Springsteen’s entire proposition right there. You don’t go to see the Boss in concert to challenge your sense of self. You go to get deeper within — alongside thousands of other American strangers who are doing the exact same thing. Catholic Church stuff.
Even on a tiny screen, the Netflix-ed version of “Springsteen on Broadway” feels a lot like Sunday Mass. Solemn talking, solemn singing, solemn talking, solemn singing. It actually ends with the protagonist — who was raised Catholic — reciting the Lord’s Prayer, then peeling into “Born to Run.” And if by that point, you feel like you’ve been listening to Bruce Springsteen orate for nearly two-and-a-half hours, it’s because you have.
Listening is important to Springsteen. He recounts the sounds of his childhood vividly — the clang of church bells, the ring-a-ding of the ice cream man, the exhausted hush of his mother’s office at 5:02 p.m. (And now, when he sings the opening line of “Thunder Road,” we hear that screen-door thwack shut with five times the force.) These remembrances become the most important sounds in the entire performance — public sounds that synchronize our lives, even when we can only hear them as memories in our minds.