Sometimes you can hear a song a thousand times and not truly hear what it’s saying. Sure, individual lines may mean something on their own, but greater context can unlock something entirely new. As is the case with all the tracks Bruce Springsteen plays in the excellent documentary Springsteen on Broadway. We might not need to be told what, say, “Born to Run” is about, but the specific personal stories The Boss tells with effortless charm shine a wonderful new light on every deep cut and fan favorite performed here.
Springsteen talks of childhood wonder, memories of his mother, and nightmare tours, with the emotional height being the material about his late father and the perspective he’s since gained on their strained relationship. And while many of these stories are also covered in his 2016 autobiography Born to Run, having them told alongside the songs they inspired is an entirely new experience.
Director Thom Zimny, who’s worked with Springsteen on numerous documentaries and music videos, knows exactly how to bring this show to the screen, capturing the intimacy of the performance in close-ups that show us every emotion behind the various songs and stories. His unassuming direction is perfectly in line with the slowed down performances of tracks like “Growin’ Up” and “Thunder Road,” allowing us to take in every detail of Springsteen’s poetic songwriting.
But perhaps the greatest trick Springsteen pulls off here is in laying himself completely bare to the audience, admitting at the very beginning that this is the only job he’s ever done. That all those working-class stories of 9 to 5 jobs were just things he made up because he’s just that good. He even humorously tells the crowd that he couldn’t drive at the time of writing “Racing on the Street,” receiving one of the biggest laughs of the night.
Of course, his stories still come from the world he grew up in, and his reflections on his and his family’s lives are all his own. But he is, first and foremost, a storyteller, and with over four decades worth of songs under his belt, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that every single one is not actually about his experiences.
In Springsteen on Broadway, The Boss looks back on his own life, stripping back the artifice both figuratively and literally to create a show that is essential viewing for fans and non-fans alike. Watch it right now on Netflix.