"Springsteen on Broadway," the Netflix film of Bruce Springsteen's wildly successful autobiographical Broadway show, opens with a tight shot of his face.
It's a smart move. Not only does it show that the filmed version, directed by longtime Springsteen collaborator Thom Zimny, plans to offer a different experience from the one that lucky Broadway showgoers enjoyed, but it also makes clear what the show is about. This isn't going to be a couple of hours with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who fills stadiums with fans screaming along with "Born to Run." This is a rare opportunity to spend time with the man.
"This is what I've presented to you all these years as my long and noisy prayer, as my magic trick," Springsteen says onstage. "And like all good magic tricks, it begins with a setup."
"Springsteen on Broadway," which debuts Sunday, is all about the setup — how the singer became the Boss and what that has meant to him. It's no wonder that fans jumped at the opportunity to see him in the intimate, 975-seat Walter Kerr Theatre, paying up to $850 (and even more if they went to scalpers) to do it. And Springsteen did not disappoint.
"Those whose love we wanted but didn't get, we emulate them," he reveals in the show. "It is our only way to get it. So when it came time, I chose my father's voice because there was something sacred in it to me. ... All we know about manhood is what we have learned from our fathers. And my father was my hero, and my greatest foe."
So much of rock and roll is built through artifice, crafting larger-than-life personas through smoke and mirrors. Like his surprising autobiography "Born to Run," "Springsteen on Broadway" seeks to tear down his persona as "The Boss" by showing its seams.
"I was born to run — not to stay," Springsteen says, noting that he lives about 10 minutes away from where he grew up in Freehold, N.J. Later, the rocking champion of the working man jokes, "I've never worked five days a week until right now. ... I don't like it."
It's a remarkable bit of honesty that the filmed version magnifies. Although the show's Broadway run ended Saturday after grossing nearly $110 million, the Netflix version is designed to live on, not just as a way for all those who were unable to catch the show in person, but to tell the story in a slightly different way. There are times when it's so quiet you can hear Springsteen's boots on the stage. There are close-ups of his hands on the piano or his face as he tells a story.
We see tears welling up in his eyes as he tells of an unexpected visit from his father, Doug, shortly before Springsteen's wife, Patti Scialfa, gave birth to their first son, Evan.
"You've been very good to us," his father told him. "And I wasn't very good to you."
The camera doesn't move from Springsteen's face as he says, "It was the greatest moment in my life with my dad. And it was all that I needed.
"Here in the last days before I was to become a father, my own father was visiting me, to warn me of the mistakes that he had made, and to warn me not to make them with my own children, to release them from the chain of our sins, my father's and mine, that they may be free to make their own choices and to live their own lives."
"Springsteen on Broadway" shows the singer as a free agent, boldly telling his own story as honestly as he can. It may not quite compete with the singular experience of seeing the show in person, but it certainly comes close.