There’s a throwaway bit in the 1977 studio footage at the heart of The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town where co-producer Jon Landau points to Bruce Springsteen’s fat song notebook and blames it for everyone’s exhaustion. “The only thing that can come out of this book is more work!” he announces, only half-joking.
It’s a telling moment in the documentary, which begins airing on HBO tonight (and will be released as part of the forthcoming Darkness box set). Sure, the singer and his band worked obsessively on Born to Run’s eight songs — a process captured on a documentary included with that album’s recent reissue. But its follow-up, 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, was recorded under different circumstances. Born to Run made him a star beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. At the same time, a lawsuit between Springsteen and his then-manager Mike Appel effectively prohibited any follow-up recording for the next 18 months.
Springsteen dealt with the roadblock by gigging and working on new songs at his house in Holmdel, New Jersey. The Promise has some priceless footage of one session there: a 27-year-old Bruce, stripped to the waist, hair exploded into a near-afro, working the E Street band through “Candy’s Boy” and “Something In The Night.” When the lawsuit was finally settled in June 1977, everyone piled into the Record Plant in New York City to begin work on Darkness with Landau and a young engineer named Jimmy Iovine. The ambitious bandleader had around 70 new songs in his book.
At this point, the narrative arc of The Promise becomes the carving of Springsteen’s vision from that songbook, like statue from marble. The vision was a dark one. “I felt a sense of accountability to the people I had grown up alongside,” Springsteen says in the film, reflecting back. “It’s a reckoning with the adult world … with a life of limitations and compromises.”
The songs that made the final cut, hardbitten tales of struggle and dashed dreams, did not make for a mega-hit album. Yet, influenced by both the punk rock exploding in New York City at the time, and the classic country music that Springsteen was beginning to explore, they have proved quite durable; if anything, being less over-exposed than the material from Born to Run, they’ve only accrued power over the years.
If all The Promise did was revisit that material, it would be a worthy project. But many of the doc’s best moments involve songs that never made the album. Patti Smith tells a touching story of completing the lyrics to “Because the Night,” a half-finished song begun during the Darkness sessions but given away because it didn’t fit the album’s theme. (Smith’s version, ironically, became a bigger hit than anything on Darkness.) And the film’s most electric moment captures Springsteen, in a tight white v-neck tee, pounding out a rough sketch of The River’s “Sherry Darling” on piano while Stevie Van Zandt, in headscarf and tracksuit jacket, drums on a packing blanket, howling jive-talk backing vocals. It’s two close friends goofing around, cracking up, totally stoned on invention.
The 90-minute film drags a little near the end, dawdling in studio-wonk territory. Springsteen scholars, though, may feel questions remain unanswered. The specifics of the lawsuit with Mike Appel (who, surprisingly, appears in the film) are a bit fuzzy. And it’s never quite clear why the titular song “The Promise” — long speculated to be about Springsteen’s relationship with Appel, a notion untouched here — was cut from the final album when it had once been its lynchpin.
In the end, Van Zandt delivers the film’s most startling line. “It’s a bit tragic, in a way,” he muses in hindsight, referring to Springsteen’s decision to make concept-album art like Darkness on the Edge of Town at the expense of hits. “‘Cause he would have been one of the great pop songwriters of all time.”
Well, it’s a thought. But as The Promise shows, and Van Zandt surely knows, greatness takes many forms.