HBO doc explores Springsteen’s pivotal ‘Darkness’

Originally scheduled for release in 2008, as part of a box set commemorating the 30th anniversary of Bruce Springsteen's follow-up to his breakthrough hit “Born to Run,” “The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town” debuts tonight on HBO after winning near-universal acclaim at last month's Toronto Film Festival.

“I think the footage sat around for 30 years,” says Springsteen, 61, of the black-and-white videos culled from recording sessions and interviews that the New Jersey-born rocker and his personal archivist, Thom Zimny, pieced together for “The Promise.” “I didn't even know it existed.”

The 90-minute documentary — to be packaged with a remastered edition of the original album, 21 of the roughly 70 outtakes Springsteen wrote for “Darkness,” and two DVDs featuring rare concert footage, due Nov. 16 — finds The Boss at an early career crossroads.

“It was time to create an identity for myself,” he says, questioned in Toronto by actor Edward Norton.

“We were in the middle of the so-called Carter recession, and the war in Vietnam had ended three years earlier. We as a country had lost our innocence, and we had this huge body of work — happy songs, bar music — that I decided not to use.”

Instead, Springsteen set out to make a “bloody portrait of America,” a dramatic departure from his three previous albums.

While touring behind 1975's “Born to Run,” Springsteen was treated by Martin Scorsese to a special Los Angeles screening of “Taxi Driver.” Springsteen says “Darkness,” a collection of 10 songs he describes as “cinematic stories,” is, in some ways, a musical counterpart to that film, reflecting an uncertain moment in both America's history and his own.

“The irony of success is that it makes you a mutant,” he says. “None of the E Street Band had ever been on a plane. New York was a million miles away. We were a bunch of provincial guys, and we'd been doing pretty well, getting a couple thousand people out for a show, charging $1 a ticket. You split $2,000 between five guys — when you're young, you can live on that forever.

“I was one of the only guys I knew who had a record deal. Nobody knew anyone else who had money, and I was feeling survivor's guilt. I was an ambitious young man motivated by fear rather than bravery, and I was afraid of losing my identity after that first success. So I dug deep. I wanted to honor my parents' history. I wanted to create something with lasting power. That's where 'Darkness' came from.”

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