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The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town

Bruce Springsteen in The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town.

Recording at the Crossroads

The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, the documentary on the 1978 album by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, is much like a Springsteen song, depicting a hero fighting other people and forces, and himself, facing daunting odds to do things his own way, adding in romance, hard work, desperation, success, failure, joy, and sorrow.

Springsteen had a lot riding on his 27-year-old shoulders in 1977. In 1975 he had released the classic Born to Run, the album that first brought him both critical acclaim and commercial success, but a lawsuit with former manager Mike Appell kept him out of the studio to work on a followup. Feeling the pressure of preserving his self-worth, meaning, and art, as well as keeping his promises to his family, band, and fans, Springsteen fought for his artistic and overall freedom, won, and recorded about 70 songs, 10 of which became the Darkness on the Edge of Town album. The music was much more stark, bleak, raw, and pessimistic than the wall-of-sound-meets-Telecaster-jangle and R&B of Born to Run.

The film starts with black-and-white studio footage of the band rehearsing “Promised Land.” Whoever decided to film/record the studio activity during the making of Darkness (probably Springsteen, a control freak) caught Springsteen and band members “Miami” Steven Van Zandt, Gary Tallent, Danny Federici, Roy Bittan, Clarence Clemons, and Max Weinberg in what musicians will recognize as familiar and intense situations. Through joking and arguing and Springsteen lecturing, disciplining, and teaching song parts to the musicians, stories of desperation come into focus. As the stark, unrelenting reality of Darkness develops, Springsteen stresses that this album was not just a recording but a “reckoning,” and that the recording of Darkness and the fight with Appell were more for control than money. Missing from this film is open conflict; despite the protracted lawsuit, Appell, Springsteen, and producer Jon Landau made up.

Band members felt the change in sound and the bleakness of Springsteen’s lyrics about lost chances, unemployment, dead-end jobs, broken relationships, and despair. While supporting what he was doing, they recall Springsteen’s perfectionism going awry. Thirty years later, Weinberg is still bemused and exasperated to recall how he, Springsteen, Landau, and engineer Jimmy Iovine worked for days to get the proper snare drum sound. Band members laughed and shook their heads over Springsteen using volumes of handwritten notes about songs and lyrics, making small and large changes, and never ending a recording session without going back to the books.

Many songs from these sessions were used later by Springsteen. The film includes a performance of “Sherri Darling” (included on Springsteen’s next LP, The River), where he plays piano and sings and Van Zandt raps drumsticks on the piano and sings. There’s a rollicking version of “Talk to Me,” recorded by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, of which Van Zandt was a member. “Because the Night,” co-written by Springsteen and Patti Smith (for whom it was later a hit single, her only one), provides a rare view of Springsteen needing help to flesh out a song.

The Promise ends victoriously, then sadly; After Darkness is released in 1978, Springsteen and band feel the needed release, start to tour impressively (having caught the band at the old Aud in December 1980, I can attest to their power), and meet with commercial and critical success, setting up the amazing career Springsteen achieved. But the price is also shown: The film ends with a powerful recent performance of Darkness on the Edge of Town where every performer is featured except Federici, who died of cancer April 17, 2008.

The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town will be shown April 25-27 at 7pm at the Amherst Theater, 3500 Main Street. Tickets are $10 and all receipts will be donated to the Make a Wish Foundation and Carly’s Club.

Watch the trailer for The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town

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