Bruce Springsteen’s One-Man Show, ‘Springsteen on Broadway,’ Comes to Netflix
Netflix has made the experience of “Springsteen on Broadway” available to all. When rock icon Bruce Springsteen decided to tell his story onstage the result was an immediate success, selling out faster than he can strum. The final performance of the one-man show was set to take place just before it streamed on Netflix, with resale tickets reportedly ranging from $3,000 to $40,000. But here we have this magical work of biography set in stone, chronicled eternally on film. With a mix of song and testimonial, Springsteen brings to life the various stages of his journey, while at the same time capturing a portrait of American culture from the 1950s to today.
For a rock god the set-up is quite sparse. Performed at the Walter Kerr Theater, Springsteen appears onstage, guitar in hand, with no more than a microphone and piano added to the foreground and background. The style of the show is him recounting life itself, from its beginnings to its highs and lows. Springsteen opens with a lighthearted and rather hilarious monologue on how much of his image is based on things he’s never actually done, such as work at a factory or have a of 9 to 5 job (“That’s how good I am”). He then goes into his childhood in New Jersey, using powerful language to evoke the sights and sounds of a post-World War II world and how the arrival of rock n’ roll changed everything. Springsteen hated school, which he says is almost a natural requirement for rock stardom, and simply followed his own road well into his 20s, honing his craft as a musician until fate brought him fame. Along with the audience, viewers are given an intimate look into what makes Springsteen tick, with several themes running through out including manhood, the drive to be yourself and dismiss all obstacles. The culture of the working class is powerfully touched on as well, and near the end Springsteen feels compelled to comment on the dire state of the republic in the Trump era. Of course there is the music, stripped down to acoustic but rousing performances of classics like “Born In the U.S.A.,” “My Hometown” and “Thunder Road” among others.
“Springsteen on Broadway” is a beautiful combination of everything The Boss has honed in his decades as a major artist. His sense of narrative, drama and atmosphere is flawless and every song flows in a rich stream with his narration. The stories he tells only help make the music even more striking. The performance of “My Father’s House,” dressed with a somber harmonica, becomes ever more poetic after Springsteen describes going to pick up his father as a boy at a local bar. The vivid details, such as the flushed look of his father’s face and the mixed aroma of aftershave and beer in the air, could be out of a Norman Mailer novel. “He was my hero and my greatest foe,” says Springsteen before sharing a haunting dream of his father. Springsteen’s descriptions of his mother as a figure of poise and class are just as heartfelt, enhanced by his delivery of “The Wish.” Small but meaningful details are shared, such as the fact that Springsteen’s mother is still alive in her 90s, retaining her love for dancing. “Thunder Road” and “Promised Land” become the soundtracks for Springsteen leaving home at 19. Later he shares a hilarious tale about being stranded during a road trip with early bandmates, trying to make their way to California to seek a music career. Into his 20s, Springsteen didn’t know how to drive a car. Stories like this help us understand a little more about why men such as this find success. They truly live outside of the rules and perceived standards of society. There’s a cheerful rebelliousness to Springsteen talking about not driving in his 20s, not liking coffee and hating his first guitar lessons.
As an artist Springsteen has never been disconnected from the world. Having come of age in the 1960s, he still remembers with passion seeing friends and musicians drafted to go fight and die in Vietnam. Springsteen recalls when he read the blistering memoir “Born on the Fourth of July,” then meeting its author, the paralyzed veteran Ron Kovic. One of Springsteen’s immortal signature songs, “Born In the U.S.A.,” is performed with a bluesy slide guitar, the words become a haunted cadence that reminds us this is one of the great anti-war anthems. Springsteen also comments on the current state of America, feeling terrified by the violent political discourse and divisions unleashed by the age of Trump. Somberly but with righteous fury, The Boss then performs “The Ghost of Tom Joad.”
From postwar America to our modern crises, this is still Springsteen’s story and with rock n’ roll poetry he tells of his insecurities and loves. Patti Scialfa, Springsteen’s wife and a potent musician in her own right, joins him after he describes seeing Scialfa perform in a club for the first time in 1984, falling in love with her face and then with her. Their duet of “Tougher Than the Rest” is a rich and tender delivery, the words emphasized with beautiful sincerity.
Whether you are a fan of Bruce Springsteen or not, “Springsteen on Broadway” is an absorbing American biography told onstage, with the poetry of words and music. This filmed version for Netflix helps us appreciate this unique one-man show up close, with the camera capturing just how brilliant Springsteen’s performance is. Just notice when Springsteen describes a meeting with his father before his own first child is born, and witness the tears that begin to swell in his eyes. It was always obvious through the songs that The Boss has a big heart, but here he gets to share it away from the roar of a stadium concert.
“Springsteen on Broadway” premieres Dec. 16 on Netflix.