Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s 2010 The Promise was the kind of archival culling that music fans dream about; a double album of unreleased tracks and outtakes from the dramatic, endless, complex Darkness on the Edge of Town sessions. It was the rare box set of its kind that worked gorgeously as its own standalone album, worthy of being played on repeat, our ears cocked for subtleties and new meaning. There were even hit singles all ready for us, in the band’s renditions of songs that Springsteen ended up giving to other pop acts: “Fire” and “Because the Night.”
HBO’s accompanying The Promise documentary, directed by Thom Zimmy, featured a treasure trove of footage from those long-ago sessions, with the band (then at what I, a longtime fan, objectively judge to be their peak attractiveness) arguing, jamming, and generally being themselves in the studio. So when HBO announced a documentary about the making of the next album in the Springsteen discography, 1980’s The River, it was reasonable to expect that the result would be similarly electric.
Well, The Ties That Bind airs on Friday November 27, timed perfectly for pie-digesting viewers — and it’s a thrill to have more Bruce in our lives for the holidays. But unfortunately, the material that director Zimmy has to work with this time is just not as riveting.
Part of the problem is the divergent nature of the two albums: Darkness is taut and conceptual, and so perfectly aligned that many of its discarded trimmings are worth hearing. The River, a double album that’s a mix of dark ballads like the immortal title track and upbeat concert favorites like “Ramrod,” is expansive and meandering. Springsteen has said himself, “I handed it in with just one record and I took it back because I didn’t feel it was big enough.”
In other words, the story of The River is already present in the contours of the album itself, and there’s just less to extract in a behind-the-scenes documentary. Almost the entire length of The Ties That Bind consists of one-on-one time with Springsteen (still rocking that soul patch that is possibly his worst decision since breaking up the band in the ’80s). He talks about making the album in a house in the country. The interview nuggets are perfectly fine, revealing Springsteen at a moment when he was seriously thinking about the idea of family and settling down, but not quite there yet — hence “The Ties That Bind,” the song that gives the documentary its name.
Throughout the hour or so, The Boss plays some of the album’s best songs on his acoustic guitar: “Hungry Heart,” “Point Blank,” “Wreck on the Highway,” “Independence Day,” “Two Hearts,” and “The River” itself, which never fails to tear the heart out. Yet although the songs about the recession sadly continue to resonate decades later, many of these stripped-down performances lack the power that Springsteen — alone or with the E Streeters — derives from a live audience. Small glimpses of concert footage from The River era are enough to make the viewer long for a concert film instead, with its inevitable hushes and wild crescendos. Alas, there’s just not much of a spine or arc to the documentary itself. That’s disappointing, but shouldn’t dampen fans’ enthusiasm for the album or the upcoming box sets; in cases like these, the music is a better story than the story.