The cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town isn’t quite as iconic as the famous Born To Run or Born In The U.S.A. snapshots, but in many ways it reveals more about who Bruce Springsteen is and who he wants people to think he is. Leather jacket on, blinds turned in, cracked wallpaper, look of confusion/bewilderment— it strikes that tone of blue-collar dread and weary maturity that the album also evokes. It’s straining to be interpreted as authentic and real, but of course, it was staged and selected to do just that. This tension—the desire to be authentic vs. the desire to create authenticity—is the subject of Thom Zimny’s documentary The Promise: The Making Of Darkness On The Edge Of Town, which screened last night at the Chelsea Clearview as part of CMJ Film Festival.
Zimny’s film chronicles the legal battles and creative struggles that Springsteen and his band had while creating their follow-up to their surprise smash Born To Run. Zimny uses archival footage of the band in the studio and onstage, old radio interviews, and revealing present day interviews with all the major participants to craft a portrait of an artist struggling to define himself in the wake of unaccepted success and acclaim. It’s fascinating to watch Springsteen—by almost all accounts an obsessive control-freak—fight his own pop instincts in the effort to meticulously engineer something authentic. It’s one thing to hear guitarist Steve Van Zandt and producer/manager Jon Landau explain how Springsteen would discard fully formed brilliant pop songs on a whim if they didn’t fit the tone of the album; it’s another to watch footage of Springsteen and Van Zandt bang out a rousing ’50s-style pop ballad on the piano that never even got recorded.
While during the Born sessions Springsteen came in with nine songs, eight of which appeared on the record, for Darkness he wrote an almost endless stack of songs that had to be honed down. Of course, one of the aborted tunes became Patti Smith’s “Because The Night.” Many of the anecdotes explored in the movie are part of Springsteen lore and certain parts (like his split with former manager Mike Appel) are kept unnecessarily vague, but the film is packed with the type of rehearsal and studio footage that will have any fan (or eve non-fan) in awe of that mysterious guy on the cover of the album.