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Friday, September 17, 2010

Springsteen Illuminates ‘Darkness’ at TIFF

At age 61 (on September 23) with some 120 million albums sold worldwide, 20 Grammys, two Golden Globes and an Oscar – and possibly the most devoted fan base on the planet – Bruce Springsteen doesn’t have a whole lot to prove.
Moreover, there is little about his career or private life that hasn’t already been exposed, dissected and analyzed for the edification of the masses.

So it’s reasonable to conclude that Springsteen’s two appearances at TIFF this year – first as the subject of a hot-ticket Q&A with actor Edward Norton and walking the red carpet (and signing endless autographs) at the world premiere of filmmaker Thom Zimny’s doc, The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town – were acts of desire, not compulsion.

Certainly, during both appearances, Springsteen seemed every inch the relaxed and genial everyman so consistently reinforced by his music which made the revelations of the film that much more intriguing.

No one watching The Promise Tuesday at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall would believe that Springsteen was anything less than wholly obsessive about his art despite the apparent effortlessness of the final sound. His relentless pursuit of what he heard in his head – to the endless consternation of everyone in his sphere at that time – made the creation of Darkness on the Edge of Town ideal documentary fodder.

Really, talk about drama – the lawsuit! The unlikely musical influences! The notebooks with lyrics for more than 70 songs! The sudden emergence of punk rock at the precise moment Springsteen was creating the template for contemporary Americana! Only sudden death and a tortured romantic relationship are missing. And maybe rampant drug abuse.

The never-before-seen studio footage collected between 1976 and 1978 that forms the backbone of the film (it’s augmented by candid recent interviews with Springsteen and members of the E Street Band) is a voyeur’s dream; all up-close take and re-takes, endless rehearsals, grinding minutiae and then, miraculously and mercifully, the final finished 10 songs that catapulted Springsteen to an orbit diametrically opposed to his most enduring thematic touchstones.

Gripping even for non-fans, The Promise – due for release as part of a hugely comprehensive box set November 16 (more below) – is a must-see and a rare window into a bona fide cultural phenom.

Alas, the fireworks did not extend to the pre-screening interview between Springsteen and actor Edward Norton - a fan and friend who sat rigidly opposite the singer/songwriter on an empty stage at the TIFF Bell Lightbox while zealous security zipped to and fro, stealthily searching for verboten recording devices and tut-tutting texting or Tweets.

Though Springsteen was convivial throughout, a visibly nervous Norton advanced ponderous and occasionally fuzzy questions while walking over the end of Springsteen’s responses.

Conceptually, Norton’s stated ambition to focus on areas broader than the making of the Darkness record – which was so expansively covered by the film – was good thinking. But he failed to situate his queries in such a way that kept Springsteen on point, which made for a wide-ranging interview but one that failed to unearth anything revelatory.

Still some rather cool ephemera emerged, to the delight of a positively rapturous audience. On the subject of his kids with wife Patti Scialfa, Springsteen admitted that they’re underwhelmed with dad’s fame and his day job, with eldest son Evan James describing dad’s look at age 27 circa the Darkness record as “ridiculous.”

(For the record, Springsteen on the cusp of 61 looks absolutely fantastic and fit).

Springsteen admitted his kids keep him current on music while name-checking UK singer/songwriter Pete Molinari and bands Gaslight Anthem, Against Me and Dropkick Murphys as faves.

Asked by Norton what record(s) he’d love to watch a documentary similar to The Promise about, Springsteen reflexively suggested the Beach Boys Pet Sounds, the Beatles Let It Be Bob Dylan’s Highway 61. Yawn.. though not surprisingly, Dylan was an oft-mentioned specter of the chat.

Of the Darkness record, Springsteen said that he was convinced he was doing something wrong at the time because it was taking so long to finish but conceded that in the end, he emerged with “the 10 toughest songs I had,” before conjuring director Martin Scorsese in admitting that “The artist’s job is to get the audience to care about your obsessions.”

Job done, Springsteen, job done.

Columbia Records releases Bruce Springsteen's The Promise: The Darkness On The Edge Of Town November 16. Box Set Includes 3CD/3DVD Package Of Remastered Album, Never-Before- Seen Studio & Live Footage, 80-Page Notebook, 21 Previously Unreleased Songs, and the documentary film that debuted at TIFF Film Sept. 14 and airs on HBO October 7.

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