Directed and edited by Thom Zimmy, this new documentary film mimics 2005's Wings For Wheels (the making of Born To Run) in terms of visuals and narrative structure. The story begins after the '75 tour, where Bruce and co. were setting out to make a follow-up record. But at that time, there were disagreements between Bruce and his then manager Mike Appel. A bitter lawsuit ensued. While everything was eventually settled, the downside was that they weren't allowed to go into the studio to record. So for three years, no new album, but lots of writing and playing new songs in Bruce's home. All this is talked about in the film, but too bad little to nothing was mentioned about the 'Chicken Scratch' tour of '76 and '77.
There's plenty of black & white studio footage from the Darkness sessions here (courtesy of Barry Rebo), inter-cutting the interviews with the band. It looks like the guys were filmed during the shoot for Wings For Wheels. But unlike the previous film, Bruce doesn't really delve much into the individual songs, but rather talks about the album as a whole, and the hows and whys of making the record. We also get to see/hear snippets of stuff that would end up on new The Promise double-LP, and also some alternate versions of the Darkness songs, like Factory and Candy's Room and Something In The Night.
The real eye opener is the actual recording process of Darkness, from conceptualization to the final artwork (there's a short interview with photographer Frank Stefanko). I mean, weeks just spent on drum sounds and trying to make the bloody drums sound like bloody drums is mind boggling (stick, stick, stick...). And not to forget the huge number of songs Bruce had written for the band. There's one scene where Jon Landau jokingly tells Bruce to close his thick notebook, or it'd just lead to more work. Also it was cool to approach Patti Smith for this, as she gave us some insight into how Because The Night was passed from Bruce to her (Jimmy Iovine was producing Patti's Easter during the time).
Bruce was a perfectionist on this record, like he was on BTR. The band was also in a similar situation in that the stakes were very high; three years not making a record was a long time back then. Jon talks about Bruce's incredible work ethic; he didn't want to go out and make hit records. Steve said it takes a lot of discipline for one to do that. The dedication to his craft was unrelenting. And when it finally came time to mix Darkness, Chuck Plotkin came onboard and saved everyone's asses. It's unique how Bruce described to him the way he wanted his music to sound like i.e. Adam Raised A Cain as equivalent to a camera cutting to a dead body in a film.
Towards the end of the film, we see all the close-ups of the band members, in their youth and then thirty years later, while the coda of Racing In The Street is playing. That is one spine-chilling moment. And as the credits roll, the band performs the title song (from Paramount '09), while superimposed with images of their younger selves. Right at the end, there's a nice shout-out to the late Danny Federici. We still miss the guy.
So while the interviews were insightful, I wish Zimmy could've put their talking over more black & white stuff, like what was done in the Stones In Exile documentary (where the interviews are more like voice overs). But I still enjoyed it overall. It's not one where I'll find myself watching a lot, probably every half a year or so, and I wouldn't expect a casual fan to enjoy it. But The Promise is a good look into Bruce's creative transformation at that time of his life, and it nicely complements the music from the box set. Think of this film as the detailed liner notes. 4/5