An incisive anatomy of an album that was painstakingly recorded in 1977 by a lean and hungry young Bruce Springsteen, Thom Zimny’s rock-doc “The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town” strongly conveys its subject of an artist trying to preserve his modest roots amid popular success. Hordes of Springsteen fans will relish HBO’s Oct. 7 broadcast of the pic and its subsequent DVD release as part of a hefty box set. But, to its credit, “Promise” keeps the faith with most anyone who’s interested in the obsessive nature of the artistic process.
Remarkably, the Boss’s close participation in Zimny’s film, which makes thrilling use of milky black-and-white footage of rehearsals and studio work of the period, has resulted not in hagiography but in a psychological character study of a pensive, perfectionist rocker driven to speak for the working class people with whom he came of age. Contempo interviews with most of Springsteen’s late-’70s collaborators, including his E Street Band-mates, sketch a vivid portrait of a prove-it-all-night workaholic on a mission to write “honest” songs for his fourth full-length platter while counterintuitively stripping down the Phil Spector-esque soundscape of his career-changing hit LP, 1975’s “Born to Run.”
The pic’s most articulate speaker, however, is Springsteen himself. Seen in the present day sitting at a piano, acoustic guitar in hand, the musician plays spare riffs and sings key lyrics from the “Darkness” sessions (including its many outtakes) by way of accessing his memories of writing the LP at age 27. “That’s a reckoning with the adult world,” he says of the record’s title track.
“The Promise” has many such delicious snippets — both of interview dialogue and of lyrics, used and unused on the finished record. Of these, the most memorable has the album’s engineer Chuck Plotkin recalling Springsteen’s instruction to make the transition between the anthemic “Badlands” and the ferocious “Adam Raised a Cain” suggest a film noir cut between images of lovers in an embrace and that of a body falling dead to the floor.
One of the many things that “Promise” fulfills on the nostalgic level is its fond harking back to the long-ago days when the long-playing album — not the single, not the MP3 — was the primary way music was sold to the masses.
Rural where “Born” had been urban, and despairing where the earlier work felt liberated, “Darkness on the Edge of Town” is a class-conscious concept album that, “The Promise” suggests, takes its name from the Boss’s own mercurial moods of the time. (In the film, both Springsteen and his former manager Mike Appel speak openly of the lawsuit between them that delayed the onset of “Darkness” and helped usher in some of its gloom.) One of the doc’s many humorous segments reveals that, over the long course of the album’s production, band members began to place bets on which of the five dozen or so songs Springsteen had prepared from voluminous notebooks full of scribbled lyrics and sound-mixing ideas he would edit down next, and how far.
Taken mostly in the studio circa 1977 and featuring Springsteen in his then-trademark blue-collar costume of white V-neck T-shirt and jeans, the pic’s archival footage — produced and directed at the time by Barry Rebo — is raw indeed; the first such scene finds the musician improvising an extremely rough guitar part that would eventually lead him to “The Promised Land.” But the audio in these vintage goodies is plenty intelligible (with the added help of expert mixing and subtitles just in case), and the film as a whole is beautifully shaped by Zimny, who also serves as editor. A documentary about the endless choices required in the making of a do-or-die masterpiece, “The Promise” selects its own material with a particular care that, in the end, translates as ease.
The pic takes its name from Springsteen’s pledge in the “Darkness” era to honor rock’s “ever-present now,” as well as from the like-titled tune that the Boss cut from the final LP, he says, because he felt “too close to it.”