To director Thom Zimny, the key element in his filmed version of Bruce Springsteen's Broadway show was in the star's eyes.
The Netflix documentary makes its first appearance on the service early in the morning of Dec. 16, hours after the singer's 236th and last performance of "Springsteen on Broadway" at the Walter Kerr Theater. A soundtrack is being released Friday.
"I wanted to capture Bruce's eyes in a way that you don't get from being in the theater," he said. "It's another sense of intimacy, another sense of the performance."
That focus paid off when cameras caught Springsteen's emotion during an introduction to the song "Long Walk Home," telling of an unexpected visit by his father just before Springsteen's first child was born. His dad said he hadn't been the best of fathers and hoped his son would do better. Anyone familiar with Springsteen's music knows the import of that acknowledgment.
Those are the moments, subtle enough to be missed by most of the live audience, that Zimny feels makes the "Springsteen on Broadway" film unique from the "Springsteen on Broadway" show. Another was the look of loving remembrance on Springsteen's face when he played piano and talked about his late band member Clarence Clemons, one he didn't see until reviewing tape later.
Zimny wasn't simply called in to tape a show near the end of its run. The filmmaker has a history with Springsteen and manager Jon Landau that includes a 2001 documentary with the singer and his E Street Band performing in New York. He was brought into the project while it was still in rehearsals.
"I've seen the show so many times I've lost count," he said. If not in the audience, he watched video and listened to audio tapes, to keep up with how the performance tightened and changed throughout the run.
At one point in the film, Springsteen confesses to the audience that "I've never worked five days a week — until now." The weary observation meant more at the end of his Broadway run than the beginning.
The filmmaker continually discussed the process with Springsteen and Landau. Their advice: "Plan a lot, but also be open to whatever the film gods or the music gods throw at you in the moment."
Zimny needed to match the intensity of a noted perfectionist. To wit: he watched the evolution of a small moment where Springsteen illustrates how little he knew about playing a guitar when he was young. He kept trying out different chords to get it just right in order to show his playing was just wrong.
The film opens with the first words Springsteen says onstage to open the performance, which is a mixture of storytelling and song that builds off the singer's autobiography, and credits roll with the final bows. Zimny wanted to recreate when the lights go down on a sparse stage and Springsteen simply appears, a moment "that puts you on edge," he said. "You have to listen."
There is no nervous backstage footage from before showtime, shots of Springsteen's hometown of Freehold, New Jersey, or artificial interludes, techniques Zimny dismissed as cliched.
"I never felt interested in cutting away from the show," he said. "The power of the show unfolding was something I wanted to capture. There's no need for cameras or editing to take away from that moment. There was no need to cut to footage of Freehold or anything. The tree in my imagination was much more powerful than anything I could film."
The tree was one Springsteen climbed as a boy in front of his house, that he later returned to as an older man. He's now 69.
The theater audience is rarely seen, except at the film's end when Springsteen shakes some hands.
"It was most important to capture a very abstract thing that goes on in the Broadway show — an emotional feeling and an arc where you go on a journey with Bruce," Zimny said.
"It's hard to put into words. But experiencing the Broadway show is such a beautiful and intense presentation. I wanted the film to both represent that and also be slightly different — so if you saw the show on Broadway, you had a different understanding of the power of performance by seeing his eyes."