Bruce Springsteen enjoys a unique bond with his fans, one only heightened by his autobiography and Broadway run. For those who couldn’t see the latter, “Springsteen on Broadway” endeavors to give them the best seat in the house, a mission that the Netflix special surely fulfills for anyone who has ever yelled “Bruuuuuce” during one of his concert marathons.
Like those shows, the Broadway special is a testament to both Springsteen’s storytelling skills and his astonishing stamina, holding the stage for 2 ½ hours, with the only company being the stage hands who hand him instruments and his wife, Patti Scialfa, who joins him for a brief two-song interlude.
Otherwise, it’s all Bruce, all the time, moving between the piano and the microphone stand where he plays guitar and harmonica, using his acoustically performed songs to help tell the story of his life. It’s a riveting combination of introspection, nostalgia and assessment of the U.S. circa 2018, acknowledging concerns about America’s present but infused with hope and optimism regarding its future.
Director Thom Zimny opens the special tight on Springsteen’s face, serving notice immediately of the intimate nature of the production. Despite access to numerous camera angles, he doesn’t have much with which to work visually speaking, given the spare stage and static presentation.
To those who have grown up with the Boss’ music, though, no frills are necessary. And as the sold-out engagement would attest, it’s hard to imagine anyone who has ever belted out “Born to Run” would want to miss this, especially if they couldn’t wangle a trip or ticket to do so in person.
Springsteen might be at his best in discussing the contradictions that have defined him – a working-class hero who concedes that he has “never worked 9 to 5,” someone who still speaks for the downtrodden while having become “wildly and absurdly successful” in the process.
“That’s how good I am,” he quips.
As always, Springsteen – rock’s de facto poet laureate – paints pictures with words as few can. That’s especially true when he describes his relationship with his father (“my hero and my greatest foe”) and his friendship with saxophonist Clarence Clemons, discussing their loss in a way that is deeply personal and yet universal.
The acoustic format accentuates Springsteen’s gifts as a lyricist, bringing a different intonation to the inherent beauty of songs like “Dancing in the Dark” or “Thunder Road” that can be more easily overlooked with the E Street Band wailing away behind him.
It’s impossible to ignore the spiritual aspects of the experience – what feels like an extended sermon in the Church of Bruce. Springsteen vividly conveys the striving and anxiety of a young man and reflections of an older, established one, infused with a clarity that comes from having told those tales to arena-sized crowds, over a rock ‘n roll career that has touched five decades.
Already the owner of multiple Grammys, an Oscar and a Tony, one would have to expect that “Springsteen on Broadway” has a fair chance of adding an Emmy to that resume, and the rare title of EGOT that would come with it.
Granted, those kind of accolades might sound like a lot to ask of one guy, standing alone on stage, armed only with a few musical instruments and an unabated passion for rock. But fortunately, he’s that good.
“Springsteen on Broadway” premieres Dec. 16 on Netflix.