Netflix film reveals rock legend’s poetic authenticity

Is it possible to fall asleep forearm-deep in a Pringles can at a Bruce Springsteen concert? Every weekday from October 2017 to December of this past year, Springsteen performed in what was probably the smallest venue he had played since the ’70s, when he played at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway. In December, Netflix made the concert available for streaming.

Springsteen’s songs lived in the pop charts due to their infectious intensity, but the marrow of his work is in the lyrics. The stories he narrated, and in which he starred, were a tabulation of teenage longing—tales that began with emptiness and climaxed in halogen bursts of solace. He touched on open highways, Vietnam vets, the unlucky and downtrodden and boardwalk midnights spent searching for girls named Wendy and Mary. He confronted feelings of dreariness and loneliness, endearing himself to generations of fans that see him as their rock and roll medium—or therapist.

On Broadway, fans would receive an intimate and vulnerable peek of Bruce, not The Boss. But the hungry teens and board-walkers who anointed him so would not be in attendance. Instead, the audience would be those affluent enough to afford the thousand-dollar-plus tickets. The only people who could get close to Springsteen were the very fortunate. It raises the question: can you be esoteric, yet market yourself as approachable and pull off the trick? It seems only Bruce Springsteen can do that.

Releasing the film on Netflix would ensure “Springsteen on Broadway” would be accessible to the masses, and the film’s soundtrack debuted slightly earlier. I assumed the movie would prove to viewers that the veteran rocker could still be as magnetic and authentic as ever. In fact, it seems to be the sole focus.

The ethos of the show is immediate. There’s blackness, then applause, then a shot cropped close enough to see the yellow of his teeth and the glint of his golden earring. From there, the show takes off on a retrospective tear.

Springsteen straddles the moniker of reclusive writer and ass-shaking crowd pleaser. In the tightly zoomed opening monologue, he affirms the need for “a development of and devotion to an esthetic philosophy…balls.” Poetry. If the snug black shirt and blue jeans he wears mean anything, his stick-to-it-iveness to his sex appeal has become its own sort of affable appeal.

The naked stage and acoustic guitar have “I’m vulnerable” written all over them. He begins “Growin Up,” a bright arpeggio that bounces between two chords, a pleasing palate for a coming-of-age soliloquy. In between verses, though, he speaks.

For anyone familiar with his music, meaning you own a radio or have attended an American sporting event, you know Springsteen’s style is deeply narrative driven. In the early ‘70s, Springsteen brought Americana: straightforward rock and Dylan-like songwriting to a scene that was becoming stylized and manufactured. His stories redirected rock to its equitable roots. He makes up stories, but he’s authentic, right?

“I come from a boardwalk town, where everything is…” Where everything is what? Is magical, is tough? Lathered in the heat of New Jersey nights? No, it’s time for honesty: “…everything is tinted with just a little bit of fraud, so am I.” I couldn’t be upset at his closed performance anymore because he gave up his hand. He’s a fraud, he says. “I never saw the inside of a factory, I never worked nine to five, I never had a five-day job a week until right now.”

The concept of Bruce Springsteen on Broadway has an oxymoronic tinge to it. For whom is the performance, the album and the Netflix film? Is it for me, the next generation of fan? My parents, the originals? Is it for Broadway buffs or rock gurus? Or is it just an entertainment bone, simply something for binge seekers to stream next? But it doesn’t matter, because by inundating it to all corners of multimedia, the ability and need to possess an audience dissolves. No specific type of person purchases Netflix or Spotify. Those are not niche services; they are practically facts of life.

A solo Broadway performance by The Boss is a tremendous and rare occurrence. But by lumping it in with every other movie, documentary and TV show on Netflix, it becomes something to which the audience is entitled, rather than something exceptional, and “Springsteen On Broadway” is muffled by the superfluous archives of Netflix. At a flat, monthly rate, neither Netflix nor I really care if I watch “Springsteen on Broadway” or rewatch “The Office.” But our culture demands Springsteen on Broadway and then on Netflix and then on Spotify; it’s our way of calling BS on false scarcity.

“On Broadway” doesn’t feel like a goodbye. It doesn’t feel like a new chapter. It feels like an extension of our times. We have near universal access to content from three seconds ago to centuries ago. Celebrities podcast, presidents tweet and we can stream everything. Why shouldn’t we have unmitigated, 4k access to a solo Bruce Springsteen performance? It doesn’t seem like spiritual fulfillment, it seems like a logical conclusion.

One of the final songs of the performance is “Dancing in the Dark,” from the album, “Born in the USA.” “Born” is a critical indictment of American policy and culture. But in the ’80s, it mutated into a patriotic anthem. When they were presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan played it at campaign rallies. Crowds cheered to the lyrics “They put a rifle in my hand / Sent me off to a foreign land / To go and kill the yellow man.” Of course, candidates know the lyrics are cynical, but they hope no one notices. They played the song for the lines, “Born in the U.S.A., Born in the U.S.A., I was Born in the U.S.A.” In other words, the illusion drowns out what is real, what matters.

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