“Now, I come from a boardwalk town where everything is tinged with just a bit of fraud,” jokes Bruce Springsteen, pausing to let an ever-thunderstruck Broadway audience laugh it up, but also to emphasize that he’s not joking. “So am I.”
This admission comes less than five minutes into Springsteen on Broadway, the two-and-a-half-hour Netflix film that premiered on Sunday and commemorates his rapturously received and violently sold-out run at the Walter Kerr Theatre, a residency that began in October 2017 and wrapped up Saturday with its 236th and final performance. Yeah. You almost definitely missed seeing it live. Don’t take it so hard. A single ticket for that grand finale, in which one of America’s all-time biggest rock stars regaled a monied midtown Manhattan congregation with tales of his humble and penniless roots in death-trap Freehold, New Jersey, reportedly would run you as much as $42,511.
That paradox—a small part of what the Boss himself calls “my magic trick”—is central to the towering mystique of Bruce Springsteen, a man lovingly nicknamed “the Boss” in a country where everyone’s supposed to hate their boss. “Now, I’ve never held an honest job in my entire life,” he bellows in an aside midway through the show’s first song, “Growin’ Up,” a typically wistful and bombastic cut from his 1973 debut album Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. “I’ve never done any hard labor. I’ve never worked 9 to 5. I’ve never worked five days a week until right now.”
“I don’t like it!”
“I’ve never seen the inside of a factory, and yet it’s all I’ve ever written about,” he continues. “Standing before you is a man who has become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something of which he has had”—he leans in close to the microphone—“absolutely no personal experience.”
“I made it all up.”
“That’s how good I am.”
More rapturous applause. Save a two-song duet cameo from his bandmate and wife, Patti Scialfa, Springsteen is all alone onstage, roaming about in boots and jeans and a black T-shirt, often wandering off-mic to emphasize that his rumbly carnival-barker voice requires no amplification. He is grizzled but not too grizzled, sometimes shot in close-ups so intense he threatens to swallow the camera whole. He moves from guitar to piano, from megahits (“Dancing in the Dark” still goes) to deep cuts (the mid-’80s Tunnel of Love outtake “The Wish” is a lovely ode to his mother), from lengthy monologues to deconstructed hymns.
Most pointedly, he turns 1984’s “Born in the U.S.A.” into sparse, guttural blues, emphasizing its Vietnam vet–inspired roots as a protest song and stealing it back from all the politicians who’ve deployed it as a brainless rah-rah campaign anthem for 30-plus years. “I do sometimes wonder who went in my place,” he muses, wrapping up his own tale of beating the draft. “Because somebody did.” There is an Age of Trump political agenda to the show, but it comes out as a crowd-pleasingly broad and triumphal appeal to our better nature, delivered with maximum sincerity and just a little winsome awkwardness. Thesis: “Now, I’m here tonight to provide proof of life to that ever-elusive, never-completely-believable, particularly-these-days us.” You might not get exactly what he means, but you’ll know exactly how he feels. And “Thunder Road,” as ever, is a uniter, not a divider.
Yes, this all runs two and a half hours. Your mind, at some point, will wander, just as surely as your eyes, at some point, will well up. For me, Springsteen on Broadway peaks early, with a long, weepy sequence that begins with a brutally gentle piano version of 1984’s Born in the U.S.A. closer “My Hometown.” As a young man, he was desperate to leave Freehold, he tells us, and as a substantially older man, he now lives within 10 minutes of it. (“‘Born to Come Back,’” he muses. “Who would’ve bought that shit?”)
But even casual Springsteen fans—anyone who skimmed, for example, his 2016 autobiography Born to Run—know that his central paradox is his love-hate relationship with his father, Douglas, a remote and withholding man who was both Bruce’s hero and archrival, his greatest scourge and most invaluable muse. “I chose my father’s voice,” is how Springsteen sums up his immediate and everlasting approach to songwriting. “I put on a factory worker’s clothes because they were my dad’s clothes.” And so, after running through the funereal Nebraska cut “My Father’s House,” he tells us a story about a dream he had shortly after his father died, in which Bruce is onstage in front of thousands of fans, and then suddenly he’s out in the crowd next to his father, marveling right alongside him: “I kneel next to him in the aisle, and I brush his forearm, and I say, ‘Look, Dad. That guy onstage? That’s how I see you.’”
Good grief. Cue the open weeping; it’s like the last scene between Bradley Cooper and Sam Elliott in A Star Is Born on a 150-minute loop. Springsteen on Broadway never hits that particular high again, though tear-jerking moments abound, from his heartfelt ode to dearly departed E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons on “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” (“He was elemental in my life, and losing him was like losing the rain”) to his awfully sweet and delicate rapport with Scialfa on “Brilliant Disguise.” (I would’ve loved to hear Scialfa deliver her own heartfelt monologue, though, especially one about what it’s like to be married to a dude who seems to speak entirely in heartfelt monologues.) Late in the show comes “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” a quietly furious populist appeal from 1995 that no politician, no matter how craven, could possibly co-opt, the camera slowly sliding into a close-up so intense it practically crawls up Springsteen’s nose. That seat definitely would’ve been worth $42,511.
Perhaps you’ll have checked out by then; like Roma, this show may lose something indelible in the theater-to-Netflix transition, laying even the most respectful viewer bare to all manner of distractions. But Springsteen on Broadway is still a frequently transcendent spectacle that’ll cure the most severe case of national theater-related FOMO since Hamilton. It concludes with Bruce Springsteen reciting the Our Father, and then playing “Born to Run.” The point is that for plenty of his fans, there’s very little distance between those two texts: Both are holy and stirring to hear long after you’ve committed them to memory. Any other artist who attempted such a pretension would come off as a fraud. But the Boss stays the Boss.