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TORONTO — Make no mistake, this film from Bruce Springsteen and his personal archivist, director Thom Zimny, is a true documentary and no concert film. “The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town” takes a meticulous journey back to the 1978 recording studio to document all the mental and physical effort that went into making a follow-up album to his breakout hit, “Born to Run.”
This is a real inside-baseball movie, fascinated by everything from the rock star’s notebooks filled with up to 70 songs to the difficult choices and final mix that went into a seminal LP. Fans and music aficionados will love every minute, while others may want less detail. Either way, this is one of the best docs about creativity in a long while.
Using Barry Rebo’s black-and-white footage shot in recording studios in 1976 (“Born to Run”) and 1978 (“Darkness”), Zimny has a gold mine of never-before-seen material plus interviews with Springsteen and members of the E Street Band, all of whom possess amazing recollections of those tough months. (They may also be the rock band that has aged the best, but that’s another story.)
The success of “Born to Run” freaked out Springsteen, who felt celebrityhood might remove him from his small-town New Jersey roots. The other “cloud” hanging over the band was a two-year recording hiatus caused by a lawsuit between Springsteen and his former manager. With no follow-up LP, the band was in danger of becoming part of those whatever-happened-to conversations.
Springsteen was determined to go off in a new musical direction after “Born.” He wrote, and he, the band and its new producer, Jon Landau, recorded between 50 and 60 songs, often with different lyrics and approaches. You are witness to his persistent struggle to find the emotional threads in songs that in his mind had to link thematically.
It is stated that few can write popular songs better than Springsteen, but that’s almost beside the point. He threw out potential hits if those weren’t the songs he wanted to represent him. He even donated a half-written tune to Patti Smith that became her only major hit, “Because the Night.”
He says he strove in the album for “sound pictures.” He wanted music that evoked images in a listener’s mind. And he wanted these images to connect to his sense of family and appreciation for his parents’ struggles.
In those two years outside the studio, music had changed. He was now listening to punk and getting into country (where, he says, the lyrics deal with adult problems).
You’re nearly as exhausted as the band by the time the final mix arrives. But it’s great seeing and hearing the band play these songs, then and now. But it’s only snatches of the album. If you really want to hear the music, get out your old LP. If you want to understand the blood and sweat that went into it, this is your movie.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production companies: Thrill Hill Prods.
Director-producer-editor: Thom Zimny
Executive producers: Bruce Springsteen, Jon Landau, Barbara Carr
Director of photography: William Rexer
Music: Bruce Springsteen
No rating, 85 minutes
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