This is an un-narrated documentary about the making of the album that followed up the smash hit "Born To Run," using both present and past interviews, studio footage and even some home movies thrown in. At its heart, it conveys the massive challenge it is to follow a hit album, along with Springsteen's obsessiveness and perfectionism that at times seems like a curse as well as a gift.
Like the album itself, the documentary is kind of an enigma. It's not disclosed whether the album was a success or not -- there were really no hit singles, although Rolling Stone ranked it #151 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time -- and it tends to deliver a sense of what this record MIGHT have sounded like, since it discusses the songs that didn't make it onto the record as much as, if not more than, the ones that did.
At its core, "Darkness" is about the heartland of America and the tough lives that are forged within it. It's clearly grittier, more stripped down and angrier compared to "Born To Run," but like that album, there's still that sense of hope lurking underneath.
"One of the elements that was so striking between 'Born to Run' and 'Darkness,' on 'Born to Run' you had the character saying, 'Baby we were born to run, we're gonna get out,'" says E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg. "In the ensuing three years between 'Born To Run' and 'Darkness' it was made painfully clear you can't just run away."
And so the documentary conveys the change in writing that this album brought about in Springsteen. He moved away from writing a pure rock and roll record and evolved into writing themes that are very cinematic in scope, dealing with loneliness, the hardened lives of blue-collar America and, as he puts it, "deep despair and resiliency." I always think of "Taxi Driver" or similar '70s movies when listening to the songs from this album, and guitarist/songwriter Steve Van Zandt makes a comparison to John Wayne in "The Searchers."
"It's a reckoning with the adult world, with a life of limitations and compromises," Springsteen says. "But also a life of resilience and commitment TO life, to the breath in your lungs -- how do I keep faith with those things, how do I honor those things?"
He goes on to say that "after 'Born to Run,' I wanted to write about life in the close confines of the small towns I grew up in. The success brought me an audience, but it also separated me from all the things I've been trying to make my connections to my whole life. And it frightened me because I understood what I had of value was at my core, and that core was rooted into the place I'd grown up, the people I'd known, the experiences I'd had."
This success was one "dark cloud" that was hanging over "Darkness." The other was a lawsuit between Springsteen and his former manager Mike Appel. Having signed himself over to Appel early in his career, he was essentially Appel's property and thus had to abide by certain requirements that prevented him from making his own decisions. It was a painful period, it cost him his friendship with Appel and significantly delayed the production of this album, leaving the fate of his band members in limbo.
"It was a lawsuit about control, who was going to be in control of my work and my work life," Springsteen explains. "Early on I decided that that was going to be me."
But these painstaking processes also lead to some fascinating revelations. One involves the efforts to try to integrate the urban-sounding saxophone into an album with a rural focus. "Badlands," for example, initially didn't have that sax solo until they worked it out. Yikes ...
There's also a great segment regarding the song "Because the Night," the melody of which was written by Springsteen, who in turn gave it to Patty Smith because, being a love song, he says he was too "reticent" and "cowardly" at the time to finish it. Ultimately, it didn't mesh with the lone-wolf, unattached quality of the album, so Smith took it, made it her own, and it became her only hit song. (Cool to see Bruce "cover" his own song).
But we begin to see Springsteen's affinity for scrapping songs because they didn't fit the album start to take its toll. At one point we're told that with "Born to Run," roughly nine songs were written and eight made it to the album. On "Darkness," Springsteen had written, in various forms, an astounding 70 songs that were pared down to the 10 on the album. One of these was "The Promise," which to me sounds like it could be the flagship song of this album, but it was never finished because Springsteen "felt too close to it."
For a guy who says early in this documentary that he felt the need to "get everything you want to say out right now because you don't know if this will be the last record," this all feels very peculiar.
"It's really hard to write a good song," says Van Zandt. "For him to write good songs, possibly could've been hit songs, and to not put them out, put 'em aside, took an enormous amount of discipline and willpower. It's a bit tragic, in a way, cuz he would've been one of the greatest pop song writers of all time."
These words feel poignant when we see an absolutely outstanding rendition of Stevie and Bruce improvising the early stages of "Sherry Darling," which eventually made it to "The River." And I'm happy to say it resides on YouTube, so I encourage you to check this out here.
But what we clearly begin to see is that Springsteen had a vision for this record, and he didn't give in to the temptation to sacrifice that for something that may have brought immediate success but very well could have ultimately rung hollow in hindsight. And we take this to heart when the documentary finally gets to the point where Springsteen ruminates about the lyrics of a few of these tunes.
Darkness on the Edge of Town: Tonight I'll be on that hill 'cause I can't stop/I'll be on that hill with everything I got/Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost/I'll be there on time and I'll pay the cost.
These are the exulting words near the end of this song, obviously proclaiming the resiliency of the character in the face of despair, and Springsteen expands on it.
"It's not forsaking your inner life force, how do you hold onto those things, how do we keep those things, how do we do justice and honor those things?"
Factory: The paradox of earning a living that takes the life out of you. I always found this to be very compelling and haunting in a way, but never knew that it was inspired by his father, who lost his hearing at his factory job.
Racing in the Street: Another poignant ballad that asks how we carry our sins through life, but with a very cool anecdote here -- there was an early version that had no girl. If you listen to the lyrics, you'll wonder how that could ever have been the case. Springsteen shopped both around, including to Stevie, who advised, "Go with the one with the girl. That's what happens in life, two guys are pals, and the girl comes along, and that's it!" Classic.
As the film closes as it began, with the chords of "The Promised Land" being hammered out, Springsteen begins to discuss the lyrics behind this anthem as well. And as he does, he seamlessly evolves into discussing the theme of the album as a whole, a testament to his vision of including only the songs that perfectly fit within his desired framework.
"[It's a song about] your illusions of adult life and a life without limitation, which I think everyone dreams of and imagines at a certain point. The song that needs to be sung is the song about how do you deal with those things and how do you move on to a creative life, a spiritual life, a satisfying life and a life where you can just make your way through the day and sleep at night.
"That's what most of those songs were about."
Rather than run the risk of feeling incomplete, it's important to note that this film should be regarded as part of the massive re-issuing of the "Darkness on the Edge of Town" album, coming out Nov. 16. It's a box set that includes the remastered album, never-before-seen studio footage and 21 unreleased songs, and much more. You can get all the details here.