It seems we have President Obama to thank—at least partially—for Bruce Springsteen’s recent Broadway show and its subsequent Netflix film version, Springsteen on Broadway. At the streamer’s FYSEE opening night on Sunday in Los Angeles, Springsteen recounted how an invitation from the former POTUS had been the genesis of the project.
“The whole thing came about as a bit of an accident,” Springsteen said onstage in a conversation with Martin Scorsese following a screening of the film at Raleigh Studios Sunday night. “President Obama, the last couple of weeks he was in office, asked me to come down and play the White House.” Thinking he would read something from his memoir Born to Run, the musician then decided to rewrite a passage as a spoken word piece. “I went down and played about 90 minutes of what would become the Broadway show in the East room,” he said, “and the alchemy just felt right.”
The subsequent Broadway show ended up being extended twice, to run for a total of 236 nights, and involved the music legend telling personal stories interspersed with his music. Introducing Springsteen and Scorsese on stage on Sunday, following the screening, Netflix’s Ted Sarandos confessed to seeing the original Broadway show three times. “Every single time it felt like I was cheating someone else in the world out of the seat,” he said. “It felt incredible to be there.”
The film’s director and producer Thom Zimny said at the event: “I grew up listening to this music and it was really important to me in my adolescence.” He described Springsteen’s work as, “The landscape of people and ideas that got me interested in film. This film became the masterclass of storytelling for me.”
But putting the film together was complex, Springsteen went on to explain. “At first there wasn’t going to be any audience,” he said. He had told Zimny and co-producer Jon Landau, “But I’m going to tell a joke and you’re not going to hear anything. That’s not going to work out.” The solution was a compromise of sorts. “So we ended up having sort of half an audience,” he said. “I have to thank Thom Zimny and Jon for their input and for the shape and form.”
He also said having the camera on him during his performance had been a major adjustment. “We shot two nights, and the first night I was really uncomfortable, which is really unusual,” he said. “I realized I’m doing the weirdest thing you can do on stage which is think about what you’re doing.” He urged the audience to never make that mistake, because if you do, “you’re f–king it up.” Upon reflection after that tense first night’s shooting, Springsteen realized that second-guessing yourself as an artist is anathema. “When you’re not in it, you’re not making your emotional life available,” he said. “As long as you’re making your emotional life available, you’re watchable, because it’s death-defying. You’re on a tightrope. It’s one old guy on an acoustic guitar. That’s the show ladies and gentleman.”
Springsteen also compared the film’s approach to Scorsese’s The Last Waltz in that it didn’t rely heavily on the audience’s perception. “It was unusual to do in 1976 because you were coming off Woodstock where audience was such a big part,” he told Scorsese.
Scorsese agreed. “Last Waltz was a bit of an experiment in a way,” he said. “What’s it like to be part of the band was the idea, and how did they work together. Create one thing out of the band. What was that language that they speak?”
In obvious admiration for Scorsese’s oeuvre, Springsteen also called the film Raging Bull “one long violent prayer”— a film that had obviously inspired him as he added, “that’s my life; that’s my job.”
The admiration was clearly mutual as Scorsese lamented his inability to play the “magic” and “transcendent” guitar. “If I could play music, I wouldn’t have to do this,” he said, to loud laughter from the Netflix FYSEE audience. Remembering how he admired his older brother for being able to play, Scorsese said, “He had this beautiful Gibson. [It was] gold, and I had to, with my friends, when he wasn’t there, be Elvis.”
Sunday’s conversation marked a reunion for Scorsese and Springsteen, who made their first major marks in the same year, 1973, in which the director released Mean Streets, and the musician launched his hit album, Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ. According to Springsteen, the pair first met in person in 1975, one fateful night at The Roxy on LA’s Sunset Strip. Scorsese had De Niro in tow that night, and would later screen Mean Streets for the trio.
As the event came to a close, Springsteen treated the audience to a live acoustic rendition of “Dancing in the Dark” and “Land of Hope and Dreams”. He also received loud cheers when he hinted that he might tour again soon—a real possibility given that his new album Western Stars will be released on June 14.