Bruce Springsteen is a phony, and he wants you to know it. “I’ve never held an honest job in my entire life,” he shouts early in his one-man stage show, viewable on Netflix Sunday. “I’ve never seen the inside of a factory, and yet it’s all I’ve ever written about. Standing before you is a man who’s become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something [with] which he has had absolutely no personal experience.”
Springsteen’s deceptions, as revealed in the extraordinary Springsteen on Broadway, are many. His rock career began at age 7, when he quit guitar lessons but still put on a show—all posing, no strumming—for his neighborhood buddies. Mr. “Thunder Road” never drove a car until he was forced to, in his 20s, on what sounds like a nightmarish cross-country road trip with his band. The hardscrabble romance of the Jersey Shore, site of action and adventure in his songs? “I invented that!” he calls out, during a segment about how depressing and provincial Asbury Park was when he first set off on his career.
He shares these small gaps between his persona and his reality not to unburden his guilt, nor to humblebrag about what a great fabulist he is—though he does a bit of the latter. (“That’s how good I am,” he cracks after one confession.) Springsteen’s interested in the way that mystique overlays on truth, allowing ordinary life to feel extraordinary. Mythmaking about mythmaking is rock and roll’s whole objective, but while artists like Bob Dylan—a common comparison point early in Springsteen’s career—serially lie to conjure the unknowable, Springsteen does it to help define and sort the world. Springsteen on Broadway is his perfectly crafted, highly emotional explainer video.
He really did perform this show on Broadway, in a 236-date run that just ended Saturday. The no-frills Netflix documentation of one of those performances conveys how difficult it must have been to pull off such live-wire two-and-a-half-hour monologues, night after night. As an actor, he’s awards-worthy, giving a folksy performance of pain, tenderness, and tentativeness—he often appears, but surely isn’t, at a loss for words—that never feels fake. As a writer, Springsteen has a columnist’s knack, distilling his 2016 memoir into rhetorically effective paragraphs that dose out darkness and lightness in canny proportions. There’s humor, too, though often simply in the form of him spitting an unexpected “fuck!” The show is a campfire tale delivered with TED panache, and if there’s a spritz of hokum implied in that description—well, it’s Bruce Springsteen. Of course there is.
Early parts of the show concern themselves with Springsteen’s childhood, in which adults—including Elvis, who came streaming through the TV set, implanting dreams of stardom—were enchanted beings, saints and monsters. One saint was his mom, whose traits he lists with pleasing rhythm: “truthfulness, consistency, good humor, professionalism, grace, kindness, optimism, civility, fairness, pride in yourself, responsibility, love, faith in your family, commitment, joy in your work, and a never say die thirst for living.” The monster was his father. In one amusing-sad passage, Springsteen remembers peering up from under his dad’s barstool and seeing the “legs and the ass of a rhinoceros,” and a face “distorted” from booze. It was his dad’s blue-collar vestments that Springsteen stole to fashion a rock persona, and that identity theft, he says, was largely undertaken to garner its mark’s ever-withheld love.
Springsteen punctuates his unfolding narrative with raw takes on tracks both popular (“Dancing in the Dark,” performed in mournful context) and more obscure (“The Wish,” never released on a proper album). His wife, Patti Scialfa, joins him onstage for two songs, and her relatively reserved manner by his side is oddly charming—a reminder that Springsteen’s performance of humanity is actually superhumanity, and most of us wouldn’t survive five minutes at his level of expressiveness. When Springsteen detours from biography to riff on questions of art and politics, his penchant for communicating in meta-narrative—in slogans and big lessons—is clearest. The forces that propel Donald Trump, he notes, “speak to our darkest angels, who want to call up the ugliest and the most divisive ghosts of America’s past.” Even the messy magic of making art gets explained in a tidy equation: “One plus one equals three.”
The show is an absorbing viewing experience, one that comes with the warm, accumulating feeling that while under Bruce Springsteen’s tutelage, everything makes sense: The mysteries of existence are unwound; rock and roll is knowable, even if Springsteen keeps saying it’s mystical. This feeling comes not because he’s revealing things that haven’t been revealed, but because he so deftly draws from a common well—the Boomer clichés of rebellion, the American ideal of shlepping for success, religion’s reckoning with inevitable death. “I never believed that people come to my shows, or rock shows, to be told anything,” he says, giving up what’s really been his secret all along. “But I do believe that they come to be reminded of things.”