Hope you like the 69-year-old version of Bruce Springsteen’s face, because it’s virtually all you’re going to see for the two hours and 40 minutes of the filmed “Springsteen on Broadway” — other than the bare brick wall of the theater casting a dim glow in the background beyond those gray sideburns, and two songs’ worth of Patti Scialfa in a harmonizing, nonspeaking role. Tight and medium shots are pretty much the rule, with director Thom Zimny waiting until the last 10 minutes to move the camera back far enough to let us see the silhouetted audience. (The 5.1 surround sound always lets us know the house is there, though, as an invisible choir of murmurers and chucklers.) The Netflix film, which bypasses theaters to debut on the streaming giant Dec. 16 (the day the Broadway show closes), even dispenses with the traditional opening shot of the artist walking onstage. The camera is already zoomed in on him at the outset, as he delivers the show’s first great run-on sentence. “Springsteen on Broadway” is a you-are-there documentary experience, but the “there” isn’t so much the Walter Kerr Theatre; it’s inside that giant head.
Springsteen’s noggin, fortunately, is a pretty wonderful place to spend the better part of three hours — even if it takes the first few minutes to get past a sense of looming claustrophobia, or the distraction of that age-old question: Do we like the earrings or not like the earrings? Once you’re settled in, the movie doesn’t suffer from not roaming the aisles or, God forbid, into the dressing room. It’s a nice face, as Eva Marie Saint once said about Cary Grant’s, and it doesn’t hurt that he now can do something he maybe couldn’t at the beginning of his 236-show Broadway run: act. Springsteen has mastered the dynamics needed to keep a mostly talking, partly singing show riveting for a running time that’s epic by monologists’ standards, if not his own. He’s not afraid to sound scripted when he’s rattling off a poetic list of rock ’n’ roll’s curative powers, but he’s also gotten awfully good at feigning those moments in captivating personal anecdotes when he seems to be searching for the right word, even if logic tells us the right word must be there in the script. Baby, he was born to ruminate, in extreme close-up.
He’s also a more skilled comedian than we realized. His take-the-piss-out moments include this piece of business at the outset: “I’ve never worked five days a week until right now.” Pause for effect. “I don’t like it! I’ve never seen the inside of a factory, and yet it’s all I’ve ever written about. Standing before you is a man who has become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something of which he has had” — another pregnant pause as he hushes his bellow to a barely audible mutter — “absolutely no personal experience. I made it all up! That’s how good I am.”
The fabulist doth protest too much, though, since the performance that follows is dedicated to drawing connections between real-life stories and the 16 hits and deep tracks included in the show. The distant, depressed, beer-slugging father who inspired “My Father’s House,“ or the 24/7 joie de vivre mom who shaped his effusive side, as recollected in “The Wish,” are not inventions. Nor was the insulated Freehold, N.J., neighborhood that he conjures as the setting for the first half of the show, in a celebration of cloistered pre-internet community that almost sounds like fiction in 2018. He makes a solitary, late-night return to his childhood stomping grounds at the end of the narrative, and as much as your eyes might mist over when he recounts a final apology from his dad or visiting a mother with Alzheimer’s, you’re more likely to cry when he recounts coming home to find the towering tree where he spent a good part of his wonder years cut down. Ask not for whom the county arborist’s saw buzzes, he suggests; it buzzes for thee — and his closing reflection on history and mortality is deeply stirring.
The tree epilogue is one of the things you may recall from his 2016 memoir, “Born to Run,” on which the Broadway experience is ostensibly based. It’s good in the book, but the way Springsteen delivers it on-screen — the way he tells his story — is better here. With “Springsteen on Broadway,” he fulfills every author’s impossible dream: getting to follow publication with an immediate, superior rewrite. Not that he re-scripts that much; this more specifically “Growin’ Up”-themed show doesn’t touch on a great deal about his life after 1971. When his wife, Scialfa, comes out, he doesn’t speak about their relationship as much as go into an evangelistic speech about the importance of making wise choices about love later in life. Then they harmonize on “Brilliant Disguise,” that great ballad about untrustworthiness, looking into each other’s eyes as if searching their own souls in a forgiving mirror.
In June, Springsteen introduced a politically ripe speech into the show, to precede “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” updating it still more by the time of this filming. He doesn’t outrightly invoke the name of America’s Voldemort, but castigates those “in the highest offices of our land who want to speak to our darkest angels, who want to call up the ugliest and the most divisive ghosts of America’s past.” He means to close this speech on a hopeful note, but you may be left wondering if Bruce Springsteen’s idealized America may be as irretrievable as those downtown businesses in “My Hometown.”
There’s not a lot of rock ’n’ roll left in the Springsteen tradition, either, but his feels like a one-man salvation show. The act of emotion and physicality that is “Springsteen on Broadway” is a kind of miracle in which the greatest singular rock star we’ve ever had turns out to be as much of a sensitive endurance artist on Spalding Gray’s ground as he is on childhood hero Elvis’ turf — and as healing a presence as Anne Lamott or even Maya Angelou, incarnated as a cool rockin’ daddy on the Great White Way. That, we can’t get in extreme enough close-up.