Sunday 20 October 2019

Springsteen on Broadway review: Netflix concert film is simply breathtaking

5 stars

Springsteen on Broadway will stand out as one of the greatest concert films of all time
Springsteen on Broadway will stand out as one of the greatest concert films of all time

Pat Stacey

Concert films are strange things. Modern video and audio technology mean they can bring a faithful record of a live gig into your living room.

However, even when viewed on a large-screen HD television hooked up to the best sound system money can buy, that’s all they can ever be: a record, a second-hand experience.

Nothing can ever match the thrill, the energy, the communal buzz of being part of the audience at a concert by an artist you love.

This is especially the case with Bruce Springsteen. If you’ve ever seen Springsteen and The E Street Band play live, you’ll know it’s much more than the rock ’n’ roll show par excellence. It’s also immersive, transformative, joyously transporting – the nearest thing you’ll get to a religious experience without actual religion rearing its divisive head and spoiling the party.

The challenge facing Springsteen On Broadway, which landed on Netflix at 8am yesterday morning, only hours after Springsteen had finished the final show of his epic, 13-month residency at New York City’s Walter Kerr Theatre, was to close the distance between performer and audience.

How do you capture the intimacy of Springsteen, armed with only a piano, a harmonica and a selection of guitars (and, on two numbers, the assistance of his wife Patti Scialfa), performing a song and spoken word show in a small theatre in front of an audience of 975?

Director Thom Zimny’s solution is to avoid distracting flourishes by deliberately interfering as little as possible.

If this is bare bones acoustic Springsteen, it’s also bare bones acoustic film-making.

Most concert films will regularly cut to the audience to show those of us on our sofas how much they’re enjoying themselves. For much of Springsteen On Broadway’s two-and-a-half hours – which positively fly by – Zimny’s camera stays locked on close-ups and medium shots.

Only in the final 20 minutes, during a mellow Dancing In The Dark, does it pull back and reveal just a little of the audience, silhouetted from behind.

The effect is moving and magical, almost like being in the room. In a way, it makes the viewer feel even closer to the action than the theatre audience must have felt, because every nuance, every facial movement (and Bruce has always been a very animated and expressive performer) is captured.

The set list runs to only 15 songs, fewer than half of what you can expect to get in a regular Springsteen show, but every one of them is perfectly chosen.

Stripping the songs back to their basics – only a voice and an instrument – lets the lyrics breathe, bringing out their beauty and aching poignancy.

Read more: Springsteen to The Verve - Slane headliners (and support) ranked from Best to Worst

It’s difficult to pick out highlights, because they’re all highlights – though the gorgeous piano rendition of My Hometown, a powerful reading of The Ghost Of Tom Joad (which Springsteen leads into with a lament about what the odious Trump has done to America) and a magnificent reimagining of Born In The USA, which he sings virtually a capella except for an astonishing, spine-tingling slide guitar intro, deserve special mention.

Rather than feeing like an indulgence, the perfectly paced spoken work interludes, many of them drawn from his autobiography Born To Run, are vital to the show. They put the songs in context, particularly in terms of his relationship with his troubled father.

Read more: Totally Bruce: 20 Springsteen nuggets

The acoustic format also showcases Springsteen as a superb musician, a fact that often gets lost in the joyous, life-affirming rock ’n’ roll racket of his shows with The E Street Band.

There’s plenty of self-mocking humour. He reveals that “Mr Born to Run” still lives only 10 miles from his New Jersey hometown, that he couldn’t even drive when he wrote Racing In The Street, and that he’s never worked in a factory or even done an honest, nine-to-five day’s work in his life.

“I made it all up – that’s how good I am!”

Not just good, Bruce – the best.

Read more: 10 reasons why Bruce Springsteen is 'The Boss'

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