The album is a lost art form in this age of auto tuned singles and iTunes. Nowadays, we rarely get to see a band lauded because of a timeless double-sided cohesive expression of themselves, never mind a follow up album to a classic. This is what makes “The Promise: The Making of Darkness On The Edge of Town” more interesting to watch than, say, a standard episode of Vh1’s “Classic Albums.”
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were propelled into celebrity and American icon status when Born to Run was released back in 1975. “The Promise” delves into the development of, and the pressure that surrounded the follow up to the classic. With countless hours of footage from the three years it took to write, record, mix and finally release Darkness on the Edge of Town coupled with current interviews, we get a firsthand look at Springsteen’s process and what it takes to avoid the hangups of success when it comes to music.
‘Promise,’ directed by Thom Zimmy, follows the evolution of Darkness which began slowly due to a lawsuit over song rights between Springsteen and his longtime manager Mike Appel that barred any studio time for Bruce. The issue was eventually settled, and the two remain on good terms, which might explain as to how breezily the major interruption to the writing and recording of the album is discussed in the film. Once recording could begin, the film looks at how someone manages to create a fully formed album, something Springsteen and his long time producer Jon Landau thought was “the highest high” you could get in music. We see the tortured young Springsteen, with his street-meets-matinee-idol looks, attempting to evolve his sound and “advance his vision.” He wanted a more singular story based on workers in America, but with a more folk/county styling as opposed to his straight up rock Born To Run. Bruce wrote and recorded with the full E Street Band over 70 tracks and songs for this album, taking more than three months on some and then cutting them from the final album if they didn’t feel true to the vision.
Seeing the struggle of his band mates to tag along for three years on this vision and deal with a leader who felt it was necessary to record days of Max Weinberg‘s drum sounds to get it just perfect makes listening to the final product even more intriguing. What could be an overworked, soulless rock album actually has heart, and it could be attributed to the unity of the band, their leader and the producer. The playful relationship between Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt caught on camera brought another level to this near standard documentary, and echoed sentiments that Springsteen is equally as talented at writing pop songs as he is to working class anthems. Van Zandt believes if Bruce went in another direction, and focused on his ability to write three-minute pop classics, he could have been equally famous, but on another level.
It’s rare to see someone as famous as Bruce be so genuine and open about experiences. The current interview sequences intertwined with recording and live footage from the ’70s shows Bruce as a nervous and fearful artist, unsure that he had the maturity or depth to write or release certain songs. One of these songs that Springsteen was unable to completely own was “Because the Night.” Friend and producer Jimmy Iovine gave the incomplete love song to Patty Smith, which still remains her only radio hit. Springsteen knows a great song, even if it’s only just a tune at that moment, but more than just being a musician he is also a stellar editor. His ability to verbalize what he wanted one to feel when listening to a song, and an album, was what drew in Chuck Plotkin, who was brought in to help mix the album once everyone there became too emotionally attached to make decisions. His recalling Bruce describing a melody in a song evoking the same feeling as a terror-filled scene in a horror film allowed Plotkin to get the vision and help them achieve it.
Springsteen isn’t your typical rock star, not then and most certainly not now. Nor is the E Street players just a backing band, and nothing proves that more than their time making Darkness. To watch someone speak so candidly about this process and still look back with fond memories at a time that could have spelled the end of his carer is more than just endearing — it completely explains the longevity him and his music has retained. Springsteen holds onto everything and the perfect example of this is three songs that were cut from Darkness have ended up on albums since (the next album, The River, being a big one), including one just a few years ago.
If there is one issue with “The Promise: The Making of Darkness On The Edge of Town,” it’s that, while an above-average episode of Vh1 “Classic Albums,” it’s not by much, and non-Springsteen heads are probably better off seeing it on repeat HBO watches than the big screen. It’s an interesting story for sure, but not exactly cinematic in any real way. Of course Springsteen aficionados will eat it all up.
The simplicity of “The Promise” allows the viewer to enjoy the nostalgia and friendship that follows a band that has been together for over thirty years. It’s not heavy hitting, nor does it break any ground about Springsteen or the band, but it does encapsulate the charisma and love of music that they have been using to draw in crowds. [B-] — Danielle Johnsen