In July 1981, Thom Zimny went to the Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey and saw Bruce Springsteen in concert for the first time. The venue had just opened its doors to the public, and Springsteen stopped by to kick off the final leg of his River world tour. “I can still remember the arc of the show,” Zimny says. “It had quiet moments, but also celebrations.”
Two decades later, Zimny began working with Springsteen when he edited his Live in New York City HBO special, and since then has directed in-depth documentaries about the making of Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town. His latest project is Ties That Bind: The River Collection, an upcoming box set featuring a new documentary about the making of The River, a concert shot in Tempe, Arizona, in 1980 and footage of the band rehearsing. Rolling Stone spoke to Zimny about how he put it all together.
How long ago did you start work on this?
The day after the Darkness set came out, we started to explore and begin the archive of the video side, piecing together every frame and every square inch of the Tempe concert that we had, down to getting the multis for it. It was a four-camera shoot, so I started cutting that. I worked first on the Tempe concert, and then I started talking to Bruce about the River doc. One of the things we talked about, not having the studio footage from Darkness, was exploring the story in a different way.
In my 15 years with Bruce and Jon [Landau], there’s been time in the cutting room where they will start talking about music or something else they like, like films. As a director, I wanted to capture that quiet tone so the viewer feels like they were sitting in Bruce’s backyard with an acoustic guitar as he goes through the story of The River, and not have the exact same journey that we had with Darkness, which was sharing it with the band and engineers and other people involved in it.
I imagine that in some ways the lack of actual in-studio footage was a blessing since it forced you to tell the story in a different way.
Absolutely. One of the first things we talked about with The River was trying to find stills from the era that had not been seen. So I reached out to all the key photographers from the era and gathered many images that weren’t out there. There’s also color rehearsal footage of the Pennsylvania rehearsals shot by Barry Rebo. It’s footage that was not bootlegged, though there is a wide shot out there in the world. But this is stuff that has not been released.
So there were elements to work with in telling the story differently that made it an exciting film. The whole “Independence Day” section you saw wasn’t planned, but it ended up being an amazing acoustic performance. Also, we got a lot in the interview that hadn’t been covered before.
How many songs does he play in the documentary?
He plays “Ties That Bind,” “The River,” an amazing version of “Two Hearts,” “Wreck on the Highway,” “Independence Day” and a portion of “Point Blank.”
How long ago was this filmed?
It was filmed at different points in the last year, though some of the interior things were filmed even earlier. When I say “interior things,” I mean I did a few setups with his cassettes and his photographs and did them straight off the idea of Telegraph Hill and some of the locations. The film is a dialogue with Bruce, but one of the surprising things about it is that it’s really as much a “making of” as much as a personal journey.
There is a bit about making The River, but more importantly writing it and how he used it to explore things that interested him, like marriage. The film ends with him saying, “I think I created this community in The River to explore the feelings of what it would be like to be married.” He’s 30 at this point and thinking about those things. Much like Darkness, that took it to a whole other level and gave me a chance to explore the music differently and also have him share stories of the art experienced his life.
Just to clarify, Bruce is the sole person interviewed in the entire documentary?
Were there other shows in the vault from the tour besides Tempe?
There are other shows, but all the masters are not much higher than the bootlegs, much like I dealt with in ’78. The ideal show we had access to, although it isn’t complete, was Tempe. The beauty of the Tempe concert, is that we have this amazing surround sound mixed by Bob Clearmountain. I also had the opportunity to cut from four isolated cameras. It really gives an opportunity to let things play out and it’s not a line cut from the screens [in the concert hall].
Why was the show filmed?
I think it was just to document it. There were bits used for a commercial at one point. I think it was just like the Born to Run concert where it happened with no real plans to release it. It was a documentation of the time by Barry Rebo and his crew.
The show isn’t complete?
They didn’t shoot the complete show. It’s a big portion of it.
The portion I saw was lit much better than the 1975 and 1978 ones.
It is. The technology was better and the image reads better. There was also an opportunity to color-correct in a way that gave it the best image quality we could. And God, those mixes are amazing with headphones. The Clearmountain mixes are just really, really powerful.
What format did they shoot it in?
The tapes are on three-quarter video. This was the very early days of video.
Was there any doubt that this was the best one to release from the whole tour?
Not really. Also, the other shows are completely accessible online, and it would be a shame to not have this show out, especially with how powerful a show it is. It’s not like we looked at Largo and said, “We’ve got a great copy of Largo here.” This is the show from the River that both both visually and sonically represent, for Bruce, a great example of the tour and the band at that time.
It was great to finally see a show from that tour. There’s great little moments, like Bruce dancing like Elvis during “Detroit Medley,” you could obviously never know from bootlegs.
Absolutely. There’s so many moments in the Tempe concert where you finally get to see things that maybe you heard on a bootleg source or on E Street Radio. Also, the songs were new at the time — the band had such raw energy. Even though it’s not a complete show, it still gives the dramatic arc of the show. You have “Drive All Night” and the slow songs, like an amazing version of “The River.” Then you have songs from other parts of the catalog, like “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” that really get the crowd jumping.
How much rehearsal footage was shot?
I don’t know the total duration, but we were able to pull out a solid half our that gives you “Crush on You,” “Sherry Darling” and a lot of other great moments of the band working out. It’s not stops and starts, but them going through the songs. It’s a great bonus feature along with Tempe. You get a complete journey of the record.
It’s definitely one of his lesser-explored classic records. There’s so much out there about Born to Run, Darkness, Born in the U.S.A.
I totally agree with you. It made it a great opportunity for a filmmaker. I was really surprised by a lot of things he said in the interviews. I had read a lot about The River and gone over all the interviews from the time. I was therefore able to know what was familiar territory and when I got something special. The beauty of the interviews was that only a few people were there. I was in Bruce’s farmhouse, and he was sitting there with an acoustic guitar. He was talking about the record, but also something bigger, which was how music was being used to explore things in his life that he hadn’t experienced yet, like marriage and having kids. Those are themes throughout the record. I knew right away when he started to talk about that in the very first interview that I had a different film, and I had a quieter film than Darkness and Born to Run, and that’s the tone I wanted to go for.
He played the album straight through at Madison Square Garden in 2009, and they filmed that. Did you think about including that on the collection?I have that footage, but there was never any real talk about that being part of the box set. I don’t know if Bruce was considering that. But with this documentary, we really focused on the images, the stills and also the sound and how the story unfolded. We wanted a quieter film and a more intimate film.
I guess everything on there is from the era, so jumping ahead to 2009 might have been jarring.
Yeah. When you open up the box, you’re in the era of The River. You’re seeing clips. You’re seeing photos. More importantly, on the first disc, you’re listening to the remastered album. You’re going back in the journey of hearing the record, and then you get the outtakes, and that’s part of the story. Then you get to the documentary, and that’s another part of the story. Then you get the rehearsal footage and then Tempe. I think with all those elements, put together, you really get the exciting point of view of both making the record, but also how it played out live.
Are you going to do Nebraska next? Born in the U.S.A.?
I don’t know yet, but I enjoy the idea of Nebraska being next. I would love to start Nebraska, but I have no plans of if yet. I didn’t know about The River until one day after Darkness when Bruce gave me the call.
The demos of him working on the Nebraska songs are fascinating. You can hear him turn the pages on his notebook as he goes through the songs.
Fascinating, right? And the tape deck and trying to get the cassette onto vinyl with Chuck Plotkin …
Then there’s Born in the U.S.A. That’s a huge story that could almost be a two-hour theatrical movie.
There’s a lot to go through there, too. Yeah, let’s keep our fingers crossed.