Seeing The Boss perform live is a one of a kind experience. Bruce Springsteen can bring down massive venues, that goes without saying. He rocks a stadium like no other. A smaller venue, though? Well, his recent run in New York of the one man show “Springsteen on Broadway” was proof of that. Now, Netflix is bringing “Springsteen on Broadway” to the masses with an Original Special that consists of the show, filmed over two nights. Having been lucky enough to have gone to the show live on two occasions (I have a very generous friend and actually won the show’s ticket lottery the other time), I can report that this Netflix special loses none of the magic. It’s a must-see.
Not only does “Springsteen on Broadway” work on its own as a Netflix special, it really does give you all of the same feel that seeing the show live at the Walter Kerr Theater brought out. The intimacy of Springsteen alternating between telling stories and playing music remains hauntingly effective. In fact, this presentation even includes one wrinkle in the show that most audiences never got to see, so there’s plenty of reason to revisit it. Plus, considering how powerful his delivery is, you’re going to want to relive certain moments again and again. Luckily, through the power of Netflix, that won’t be an issue.
At its core, this is a one-man show. In the same way that a stand-up comedy special would look a certain way, so too does this. Bruce Springsteen stands on a sparse stage and tells a story, mostly taken from his memoir “Born To Run,” then plays a song. He’s either standing up with a guitar/harmonica or sitting at a piano. It’s mesmerizing in its simplicity. Without spoiling things, Springsteen starts by talking about how his whole persona has been, in his own words, a magic trick. The man who wrote about racing cars and working in a factory? He didn’t have a license at the time and never worked a day in his life. The poet laureate of middle-class values and getting out of the town you grew up in? He currently lives ten minutes away from his childhood home.
As he talks about that, he plays songs that reiterate these staples of his oeuvre, only now, they have a new meaning. There’s also a two-song interlude where he brings out his wife, E Street Band member Patti Scialfa, as well as a break in “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” to pay tribute to Clarence Clemons. Any Springsteen fan will be profoundly moved by the latter. For the former, it’s duets on “Brilliant Disguise” and “Tougher Than The Rest.” The songs he’s choosing aren’t the most popular ones from his career. They are, however, the right ones for the story he’s telling. That quickly becomes very clear. Plus, they’re also magnificent in their own right.
Among the most emotional points are when he discusses his parents early on. His father Douglas Springsteen was, in his own words, his hero as well as his greatest foe. The song “My Father’s House” splits up a story about him, including a recollection of a dream that will hit home to anyone who clashed with their father. Doug was a haunting figure in Springsteen’s life, and he doesn’t shy away from that. On the flip side, the story about his bright and warm mother Adele Springsteen is the single best part of the show. Especially when you figure out the whole new wrinkle that “The Wish” takes on these days. That’s a staple of the production, but it’s perfectly done here. The song will stay with you long after the credits roll.
One more moment that will stand out, not just for newbies, but for those who went to the show, is when he tells a second story about his father. It’s a moment of closure that will once again bring you to tears. It’s punctuated by the playing of a deep cut song in “Long Time Comin,” which takes on a completely new meaning. Yours truly thought that there weren’t going to be any surprises here. Lo and behold, this twist absolutely knocked me on my ass. It will assuredly do the same for you as well.
As a performer, Springsteen puts on many faces. In a way, he’s also stripping himself bare for you. You get the version of him that’s self-deprecating. You get the cocky showman. There’s also the emotional griever for what’s past him by. The weight of a tough upbringing weighs on him. Avoiding service in Vietnam and potentially allowing some other young man to go in his place weighs on him. Towards the end, he begins to explain why he does what he does, and why his dedicated audience means so much to him. Through it all, he presents it as if he’s talking to you. Just to you. As a result, it’s an intimate experience that has to be seen in order to be believed.
If there’s one shortcoming to “Springsteen on Broadway,” it’s that director Thom Zimny doesn’t open things up. It’s just Springsteen, in a black t-shirt, standing in front of a sparse stage that resembles an abandoned factory. Zimny doesn’t expand on that. If anything, he goes in even tighter on the face of The Boss. You better get used to close-ups of Springsteen as he talks or plays. It’s undeniably powerful, but it does get repetitive. The words that Springsteen wrote (he’s credited as the writer here too, obviously) hold more weight than any of the visuals. On stage, it’s obvious and the intent. Here, it’s a necessary evil. It doesn’t distract at all, but it does mean you’re following a pretty rigid rhythm for nearly two and a half hours. This is a small issue, to be sure. It’s worth taking note of though.
The best compliment that “Springsteen on Broadway” can receive is that, as a Netflix Special, it works as a lovely companion piece to the live show. If you were lucky enough to see it live, this close-up look at Bruce is something you didn’t quite get. If you, like most, weren’t able to make it to New York, or pay the ridiculous ticket prices, this gets you right there for all the emotion. There weren’t any dry eyes at the Walter Kerr in real life, and even watching at home, that will be the case as well. A one of a kind Broadway experience now reaches the masses. It demands to be seen. Springsteen diehards are in for a treat. Hell, newcomers are too. Whoever you are, enjoy the power of The Boss!