By Ben Travers | Indiewire April 4, 2014 at 4:24PM
"I find I'm just trying to resolve something that's bothering me
internally, y'know. That's really the thrust. The thrust isn't the
theme. It's not conceptual. It's something that's continuing to bother
me even after all these years, and I am going through my meditation that
helps me moves towards slightly a greater degree of resolution."
So says Bruce Springsteen during the first few moments of HBO's latest documentary on the legendary songwriter and performer. Caught in a moment of contemplation -- or more likely, forced into one -- the man affectionately known as "the Boss" tries to explain where his music comes from and why it keeps coming "after all these years." The topic itself is one worthy of examination. After all, the 64-year-old rock star is still moving, shaking, and producing new content after more than five decades in the entertainment business -- and he's not walking around stage, jerking about sporadically for 90 minutes before calling it a night. He's still putting on marathon sets lasting three hours or more, sliding on his knees from one end of the stage to the other, and climbing barricades to reach fans a little further from the front row.
The effort is more than admirable. It's outstanding. What's less so is the content he's come up with in his last few albums. A drop off in quality may be an accepted trait of many aging rock stars whose prime was way back during the golden age of music, but not The Boss. He had a songwriting resurgence after reuniting with the E Street Band in 2002 for the Grammy-winning album, "The Rising" and continued to produced exceptional music with 2007's "Magic" -- perhaps his best record since "Born to Run" -- and the folk-inspired grouping of cover songs, "The Seeger Sessions." Even 2009's "Working on a Dream" found your parents' favorite rocker -- and mine -- experimenting with new age sounds. It wasn't until 2012's disappointingly simple "Wrecking Ball" and the January release of "High Hopes" that Springsteen showed signs of mediocrity.
Now, HBO is taking another look at the Boss after "Live in Hyde Park" and "The Promise: Making the Darkness on the Edge of Town" aired in 2010. Unlike that concert doc -- who doesn't want to see the Boss live? -- and the detailed look at historical footage worthy of the Toronto International Film Festival, "High Hopes" is a lackluster endeavor not worthy of Springsteen's time, let alone ours. Despite what Rolling Stone says, Bruce's latest album featured some of the least impressive lyrics to date as well as some of the most conventional sounds. It isn't notable enough for even a half-hour documentary and can't be saved by some fine artistic efforts by the filmmakers.
Director Thom Zimny frames the iconic figure in shadows for the one-on-one interviews and incorporates some valuable archival footage into the proceedings as well. Both succeed in showing Springsteen as an articulate, thoughtful individual who takes great pride and care with his work. Zimny shows some music video-esque moments of the Boss singing as lyrics scrawled in handwriting flash across the screen. The look, frankly, is gritty and sleek, an admittedly odd mixture but a perfect pairing for the meticulous Blue Collar mentality of its subject. Sadly, the lyrics themselves don't support the artistry of their presentation. With lines like, "Einstein and Shakespeare/sittin' havin' a beer/Einstein tryin' to figure out the number that adds up to bliss/Shakespeare says, 'Man, it all starts with a kiss.'/" the power usually associated with Springsteen, even in fun-centric songs like this one ("Frankie Fell In Love"), is absent. It appears in a few spots, but not consistently enough and usually in previously released tracks (three of the 11 tracks were already released on other albums or online).
Known for being obsessive in the studio, Springsteen discusses how some of his most popular tracks (including "Born in the U.S.A.") were cut from albums before making it onto later projects. This was how "High Hopes" came together. It's a collection of initially rejected tunes thrown together after former Rage Against the Machine artist Tom Morello pushed his friend into the studio to get these down. Morello makes a few appearances in "High Hopes," speaking about how much he loves the title track. Springsteen even says Morello "was the glue that turned [the album] into something we'd release." It's a nice sentiment, but not of the passionate variety one would prefer to hear from an advocate of the people who says he keeps making music because "he has to." Whether Morello was "the thrust" of "High Hopes" or it was something else, something unresolved within Springsteen, we need more from the man still able to give it to us.
Criticwire Grade: C
"Bruce Springsteen's 'High Hopes'" airs Friday night at 9:30pm on HBO.