Thursday, September 23, 2010

TIFF 2010 Review: "The Promise: The Making Of 'Darkness On The Edge Of Town"

(Gala Presentation)
(USA, 2010, 89 minutes)
Directed by: Thom Zimny
Cast: Bruce Springsteen, Steve Van Zandt, Jimmy Iovine, Max Weinberg, Roy Bittan, Clarence Clemons, Danny Federici, Nils Lofgren, Garry Tallent, John Landau, Patti Scialfa, Chuck Plotkin, Patty Smith

"It was both self-indulgent, and the only way we knew how to do it."

A wealth of ultra-rare rehearsal footage from the turbulent birth of Bruce Springsteen's 1978 album, "Darkness On The Edge Of Town" is the main draw of this gripping documentary, which gives us fly-on-the-wall access to the creative mind, obsessive perfectionism, and conflicted persona of a serious artist who before the age of thirty had unwillingly become rock-and-roll's Great Hope.

Amidst a lawsuit with his former manager and alienation from his roots following his overnight transformation ("mutation" as he puts it, in present-day interviews) into an arena superstar, Springsteen resisted a speedy rehash of the jubilant Spector-influenced anthems that made his 1975 "Born To Run" an instant classic, and instead conceived a stripped down musical novel of haunting, exhausted hymns (as author Nick Hornby has defined Springsteen's less bombastic efforts) to the painful surrender to "adulthood"--much to his label, producer, and his faithful band's, chagrin.

Hours of videotaped footage chronicling the exhausting recording sessions at Springsteen's farmhouse in Holmdel, New Jersey (far enough away so as to not disturb the neighbours) have been edited down into a surprisingly-dramatic chronicle that should do much to shatter the woefully inaccurate stereotype of New Jersey's finest son as a purveyor of knuckleheaded barroom barnstormers and patriotic anthems that has, for some, endured to this day.

A sullen, grumbling Springsteen (sometimes subtitled) taxes his band mates' patience as he pours over notebooks of scribbled lyrics and demands retakes of near-Kubrickian intensity as he labours to craft the "sound picture" he'd envisioned.

"More than rich and more than famous and more than happy, I wanted to be great" confesses current-day Springsteen, with a chuckle at his youthful pretensions.

Springsteen's reams of notebook scribbles yielded so many songs--70, by engineer Jimmy Iovine's estimate--that he saved many of them for 1980's "The River", although the majority went unheard until the 2004 anthology "Tracks". The most famous of his rejects would become major hits for The Pointer Sisters ("Fire") and New York punk "godmother" Patti Smyth. Smyth is present to talk about the creation of her only hit, the achingly erotic lament "Because The Night", which was given to her by Springsteen through engineer Iovine, for which she completed the lyrics during an evening of romantic longing over her future husband.

In a "Scrambled Eggs/Yesterday" moment, Springsteen admits that "Badlands" began as a simple melody and a single chant of the title and that lyrics and arrangement came later. It's also surprising to learn that Clarence Clemons' involvement on the album was oft-debated and intended to be minimal, given that Springsteen couldn't figure out where his saxophone would fit in given the punk-and-country influence simplicity of the production. For such an immortal track, it's astonishing to consider that The Big Man's rousing solo on this particular song was an afterthought to the original guitar arrangement, and included more out of fraternal debt than anything else...

Springsteen's former manager Mike Appel, amazingly, appears on camera to give his side of the story with little bitterness or regret. Springsteen, seemingly still smarting from the battle, diplomatically defines his contract with Appel as "not so much evil, as it was naive". Appel's insistence on approval of every stage of production kept Springsteen out of the studio for years, while the band ("My soldiers", admits Springsteen with touching sincerity) finds their collective rock-and-roll dreams put on hold...

The band members, likewise, pull no punches in their candid reminiscences over an experience that for many, still stings: "A bit sad" is how keyboardist Garry Tallent regards the hours-long recording of the beat of a single drum stick. Long-time musical partner Steve Van Sandt regards his friend's willingness to blithely chuck material “a bit tragic, in a way...he (Springsteen) would have been one of the great pop songwriters of all time.” Still, there was much fun to be had during this incredibly fertile creative period, evidenced by Springsteen and Van Sandt's goofy after-hours burn through what would later be refined into "Sherry Darling" on "The River" and "Talk To Me" (which was ultimately recorded by Southside Johnny And The Asbury Jukes).

Ultimately Chuck Plotkin is brought in by Iovine to mix the album and save the day: a producer by trade, and not a mixer, he found a sonic place, according to Springsteen "between the dull and the shrill".

Briskly paced and edited, the documentary disappoints only in that it doesn't provide in-depth coverage of the album's eight tracks in their entirety. "Badlands", "Factory", the excluded "Because The Night", and the majestic "Racing In The Streets" receive the most screen time, while "Adam Raised A Cain" and the title track are barely mentioned beyond the album art and glimpses of notebook scribbles. "Streets Of Fire", which inspired an entire feature film, and "Candy's Room", a concert favourite, go entirely unmentioned.

Even the cover shot is documented: photographer Frank Stefanko reveals alternate takes of the iconic album photo that was shot in his own home in Haddonfield, NJ, complete with distinctive cabbage-leaf wallpaper.

"The Promise" will debut on HBO this October, and will be part of the CD/DVD package commemorating the album's 25th anniversary in November.

©2010 Robert J. Lewis