“Springsteen on Broadway” might be the single best thing that Netflix has ever done. Which isn’t to say that it’s a better film than “Roma” or “Private Life” — or that it’s even a film, at all (it’s categorized as a “special”) — but that it epitomizes the full potential of a platform so large that it tends to crush whatever it touches. Beginning on December 16, just a few hours after Bruce Springsteen growls the final notes of his Broadway residency, Netflix subscribers around the globe will be gifted front-row seats to one of the most exclusive shows the Great White Way has ever seen (even at the height of its popularity, “Hamilton” tickets went for a fraction of the price).
And this is the show — nothing more, and nothing less.
Directed by longtime Springsteen videographer Thom Zimny, the streaming version of “Springsteen on Broadway” starts with the Boss arriving on stage, it ends with him leaving it, and it doesn’t appear to skip over a single moment that paying audiences would have seen from inside the Walter Kerr Theatre. If Zimny has cobbled together footage from different nights, it’s impossible to find the cuts. There’s no backstage business, no reflective asides; the whole performance is a reflective aside. High-definition close-ups are your only consolation prize for not being in the room where it happened.
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And that’s exactly how it should be: Springsteen’s spare, revealing self-tribute is a profound testament to his gifts as a storyteller, and Zimny has no interest in breaking that spell. He’s not exactly Jonathan Demme, but he gets the job done.
This is the kind of democratization of content that even the most “elitist” of film critics can get behind. “Springsteen on Broadway” enshrines the primacy of the theatrical experience, while still retaining the raw essence of the show’s power at home or on the go (provided that you have a decent pair of headphones). For viewers who couldn’t see the real thing — and most especially for New Yorkers, some of whom work just a few blocks away from the Walter Kerr, but have never been able to go inside its walls — the access is so exciting that the 14-month wait for it seems like a small price to pay. Call it a film, call it a special, call it whatever you want; on Netflix, “Springsteen on Broadway” is nothing short of a public service.
In a way, this could be construed as a uniquely fitting way to enjoy Springsteen’s most intimate set, or at least to preserve it for posterity. For one thing, the Boss is the ultimate blue-collar hero, and while he was able to pack the Walter Kerr Theatre full of adoring fans every night, it was always strange that he was singing about union cards and open highways to a room full of investment bankers. The Netflix aspect fixes that. For another, watching “Springsteen on Broadway” on a screen of some kind helps expose the artifice that underwrites the whole production.
And that’s important, because this show is basically a chance for the Boss to call out his own bullshit. “I came from a shithole where everything is tinged with just a little bit of fraud,” he says at the start, standing on a stage that’s empty save for a piano and some prop equipment. “And so am I, in case you haven’t figured that out yet. I’ve never held an honest job in my entire life. I’ve never worked nine-to-five. I’ve never done any hard labor. I have become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something that I have no knowledge of.”
Springsteen was discovered in his 20s. He dodged the war. He told America’s story from outside of the margins, and he wrote huge swaths of it himself whenever people needed some help to find the plot. From the very beginning, this show is determined to take the denim fantasy that Springsteen invented and rip it apart at the seams. To show us the secret behind his self-described “magic trick.” His Broadway performance was virtually the same each night — down to the “uhs” and “ums” he slips in between the lines — and yet he delivers it with the extemporaneous cadence of a confession, or at least a podcast. Every line is a lie, even when Springsteen is finally telling his truth. He cries at one point. Did he do that every night?
For two-and-a-half-hours the rock god walks us through the story of his life, first in great detail, and then more nebulously as he goes along; he spends a great long while on formative years, and offers a stray thought at most about his 30s and 40s. Much of this oral history is lifted from Springsteen’s autobiography, but he punctuates the anecdotes with stripped-down renditions of his most personal songs, from the obvious (“Thunder Road”) to the narratively necessary (“Growing Up”). As the show goes on, the songs do more of the talking for him. It all peaks with a soul-stirring version of “Dancing in the Dark” that aches with the yearning and desperation that defines the whole experience.
As the personal details start to accumulate (and then grow a little bit more sparse), it gradually becomes clear that Springsteen isn’t singing about himself. He never was. On Broadway, he’s venerating his legend by dismantling his myth; he’s revealing how he became an icon in order to make us believe in myths of our own. In the grace of our hard work, and in the beauty of high school parking lots. To recognize the value of our dreams, and to appreciate the poetry of their aftertaste. At one point — without naming any names — Springsteen rails against the leaders of today, and reiterates that America is a place where tomorrow is always going to be worth fighting for. His songs might be sung in a nostalgic key, but now it’s easy to hear how the best of them point forward. Some magic tricks are even more impressive when you know how they’re done, and on Netflix you can watch this one over and over until you figure it out.
“Springsteen on Broadway” will be available to stream on Netflix on Sunday, December 16.