The Promise is a very remarkable documentary. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in pop and rock music, music recording, and the creative process in general. I particularly recommend it to young people who think modern pop music is shit and find themselves listening to stuff like the Doors, Fleetwood Mac, The Cars, and early Madonna on YouTube. You don’t have to particularly like Bruce Springsteen to enjoy this documentary. You do have to like pop/rock to a certain extent, although my wife really enjoyed it and she listens to very little pop or rock.
I’ve never been a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen. I’d didn’t overly care for the Born in the USA album, or anything that came after. I did like certain tracks off The River, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and Born to Run. But until I watched The Promise, I had no idea Springsteen was such an interesting guy and such a deep and driven artist. Listening to him talk about what he was trying to accomplish on this album is the perfect antidote to today’s robots-with-diarrhea pop music. I mean, we are talking about a guy who, if he wrote song he thought was going to be a hit and which would therefore distract the listener from the other songs on the album and from the album’s message as a whole, he would leave it off the album! And this was not an isolated incident, it happened over and over. Can you imaging music mattering enough to any big artist today that they would exert that kind of artistic discipline? As Springsteen mentions in the documentary, more than being famous, or being wealthy, or even being happy, he wanted to be “great.” This sounds strange to our modern ears and is probably incomprehensible to the pop stars that record companies pump money into nowadays, and yet we wonder why there is no more good music out there anymore.
The other thing that struck me was Springsteen’s artistic devotion to his internal values shaped by his experience in life and the community he grew up in and was shaped by. He wrote honest music about real things in life – this isn’t “stop telephoning me, I’m busy,” this guy is singing about how his dad lost his hearing in the factory he spent his life working in but how it’s all a natural part of life. When do you ever hear anyone singing about this kind of thing now?! Think for a moment about the spectrum of pop music we have to choose from now. We have Lady Gaga singing about how cool she is getting blind drunk in clubs and blowing off her boyfriend. We have the androgynous child Justin Beiber doing music videos where he is picking up grown women in laundromats. We have ten million identical indie bands singing about miscellaneous existential topics in the voice of a lobotomized 13 year old. We have ten million identical sounding chick singers doing robot-soul anthems to the positive-thinking movement and how there’s nothing they can’t do in life if they just dump their loser boyfriends who they are too good for. We have ten million identical country dweebs singing about Happy Meals and sub-moronic adolescent girl crushes. We have ten million identical rapper-dudes singing about bling, and how big their cocks are, and what their astonishing sexual technique does to the women who experience it, and how much fucking money they have. Good God! And record companies wonder why sales are down and no one listens to music anymore except as a half-ass backing track to their boring, mundane lives?
Then you come to something like Darkness on the Edge of Town. This guy is wondering about things like how you honor you parents, how to carry your sins even in a good life, how you honor your community, how you deal with the the need for compromise and the inevitable disappointment in your life while at the same time resisting complete surrender. Springsteen is exploring our creative natures at their very core, not as a manifestation of our egos and our insane avarice but rather as a humble, natural facet of life itself, equal to the need to earn a living and take care of your loved-ones. The guy is a freaking hero-philosopher compared to today’s bilge. And the music, I might add, is fabulous sounding – a real band, talented and soulful musicians, together for years, knit together like a family, captured in all their sonic glory on beautiful analog tape. I never really appreciated what a composer Springsteen was in his early days. It is clear from the documentary that the guy had an amazing amount of raw musical talent, probably more than the top one hundred pop artists of today combined (and that includes Adele, in case you’re wondering.) And thanks to the incredible amount of archival footage from the actual 1978 recording sessions that is incorporated generously into the documentary, we get to see all this talent and passion in action. It’s fascinating and very inspiring.
View The Promise and prepare to be blown away by what pop music used to be, and what it used to mean to the people who created it. You won’t regret it.