If Bruce Springsteen had retired 30 years ago, his legacy as one of music’s most profound and consequential singer-songwriters would already have been secure. But he kept working, kept touring, and kept writing and releasing new music. Along the way, he’s remained relevant in ways few of his peers have managed to.
The Boss has aged well. He never coasted on his past greatness, turned his back on his fans or settled into a nostalgic dinosaur act lazily churning out the hits to arenas full of graying Baby Boomers.
His music still grabs you by the shoulders and shakes you, rattling in your chest and rocking you with a primal growl that thunders with dignity and authenticity. This sh-t is real. In the course of a verse, he will build you up, bring you low, and leave you breathless but never empty.
“Springsteen on Broadway” is the singer-songwriter distilled down to his most basic and potent elements. Shot over two nights during his recently concluded Tony Award-winning residency at Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theatre, the film, which premiered on Netflix Dec. 16, is an intimate, poignant and personal performance that drops the veil between artist and fan.
Alone under a spotlight with a guitar, piano and harmonica, Springsteen holds court, telling stories and playing songs for more than two and a half hours. At times, the stories he tells are delivered like sermons. His personal anecdotes about growing up in a working-class New Jersey and escaping his hometown echo with relatability, even if you’ve never set foot inside the Garden State.
He is also disarmingly fragile and vulnerable. He speaks about his fraught relationship with his father and the unyielding compassion and quiet dignity of his mother with moving candor. His back-to-back renditions of “My Father’s House” and “The Wish” are an emotional one-two punch that will leave you drying your eyes.
Naturally, Springsteen wades into political matters, and doesn’t hesitate to share his thoughts on the current state of affairs. In the introduction to the protest song, “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” he speaks of the sacredness of democracy and how proud he was to see it on display in recent mass demonstrations like the March for Our Lives.
“These are times when we’ve seen folks marching and in the highest offices of the land who want to speak to our darkest angels, who want to call up the ugliest and most divisive ghosts of America’s past, and they want to destroy the idea of an America for all,” he says referencing the resurgence of white nationalism and the separation of migrant families at the southern U.S. border.
Over the course of the film, Springsteen’s stage presence vacillates between braggadocio and self-deprecation. He’s self-aware enough to own the boastful title of “The Boss,” but humble enough to laugh at himself about it.
“I’ve never seen the inside of a factory, and yet it’s all I’ve ever written about,” he says at the start of the evening. “I made it all up. That’s how good I am.”
It’s not arrogance, it’s honesty. He takes his role as a songwriter seriously. He sees his celebrity as a privilege that must be wielded responsibly. If millions of people are going to hear his voice, then he’s going to tell them something important.
It’s his magic trick, as he calls it — singing his songs, making them real and felt, capturing in them something universal, true and authentic. Bruce Springsteen is the avatar of the American Dream, of the American Experience. He loves his country, and that love compels him to be critical. He is honest about its flaws and failures, he owns its shortcomings, he bears witness to its shame. It’s a patriotism of a higher order — the patriotism of dissent, of daring to say we can and must be better, a plea to our better angels. It’s a love that, at times, is difficult to demonstrate. It’s a patriotism that’s more difficult and even dangerous to execute. To some it looks to be just the opposite, but it’s truer than empty gestures — than any flag you wave, any anthem you stand for, or any pledge you recite.