Warning: this movie, a previously hidden document of the making of one of rock’s classic albums, contains no drugs, no booze, no infidelity, no fights with the drummer, no team of psychiatrists, no ponytails, no leather trousers, no mental rock wives, no sunlight and very little make up. It’s concessions to rock and roll cliché are a couple of tepid arguments and a court case with manager/producer/friend Mike Appel.
Sobered by the giant success of the Born To Run album, Springsteen talks of wanting to look after his band, control his own copyright, career decisions, not lose connection with his friends and to be great. The grim black and white footage which catches the mood of boredom, financial punery (“after a hit album I went into the studio owing millions, not the other way around…”) is stunning but it’s the prolific nature of his songwriting as he leafs through notebook after notebook, ignoring potentially great songs in favour of those which would form the album he had envisaged that are at the heart of the The Promise. These discarded tracks are about to be released in an album of the same name and this is as much a promo for that fact as it is about the making of Darkness… itself.
Sandwiched between two huge albums (Born To Run and The River), Springsteen’s fourth record has always lurked like a fine wine locked away in a musty basement. Claustrophic, intense, brimming with frustration, sexuality and stark beauty, it’s perhaps the quinntessential American album. The Promise is an out-of-the-blue education in the inception, recording and the evolution of Springsteen’s relationship with his songwriting and with the E-Street Band.
So how do you make a record like this? Well, gleaned from The Promise you’ll need 70 songs, one white t-shirt/vest, a bandana, a drumstick, a snare drum, a bunch of men with endless patience, a rattlesnake speedway, a ’69 Chevy, a black and white house away from the neighbours and a black and white basement with awful carpet. All of you need to have no life outside the band. Oh, and for a considerable time you need to be stuck in a courtcase that prevents you entering the studio, hence you have to go on the road and tour endlessly. Later on you can put on a jacket (over the same T-shirt, no need to get another) in front of a window surrounded by bad wallpaper, for the album cover.
Smattered amongst the monochrome rehearsal and recording footage are technicolour interviews with all the main contributors to this album. Springsteen talks about songs that made it and the ones that didn’t, explaining that he was following his artistic instinct as his artistic intelligience was only developing. That instinct let him give away a great song (albeit unfinished), ‘Because The Night’, to Patti Smith, who subsequently added some lyrics and had a huge hit with it. Still clearly bewildered how someone would pass on such an obvious game changer, she recalls getting it from producer Jimmy Iovine (who was working with both artists) and the reason becomes apparent when Jon Landau reveals that if Springsteen doesn’t like the position a song might put him in (in this case, another huge hit single to follow Born To Run), he won’t put it on the record.
For anyone thinking of recreating all the conditions and circumstances above to make an album that will still be talked about over 30 years after its release, even if you remember the cameras, unfortunately for you, you’ll also need to be Bruce Springsteen.