Premiered November 27th on HBO
The Ties That Bind is a case of diminishing returns for Bruce Springsteen and his personal documentarian of choice for the past decade, Thom Zimny. The pair have now collaborated on three documentaries that explore the creative process behind some of Springsteen's most highly regarded albums: 2005's Wings For Wheels: The Making Of Born To Run (the best of the three), 2010's The Promise: The Making Of Darkness On The Edge Of Town (good, but not quite as engaging as its predecessor), and now The Ties That Bind, which looks at The River album. The newest documentary premiered on HBO last month and is included in the just-released The Ties That Bind: The River Collection box set, a comprehensive package commemorating the 35th anniversary of the album's release.
Whereas his previous films employed a wider scope by featuring contributions from Springsteen's E Street Band members and some of Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge Of Town's production personnel, Zimny opts to dramatically narrow his focus on The Ties That Bind. Springsteen is the lone voice heard during its 56 minute running time, to the film's detriment. Obviously, The Boss is the focal point and he does offer some informative and entertaining recollections from the period, notably his desire to better capture the dynamic nature of his live shows and why he took back the original 10 song album he'd submitted to his record company in 1979 because "it just didn't feel big enough" (The River was released a year later as a double album). There are also stripped-down performances (some partial) of "Hungry Heart", "Point Blank", "Wreck On The Highway", "Independence Day", "Two Hearts", and "The River", played by Springsteen on an acoustic guitar in his living room and in the driveway in front of his garage, which incidentally looks as lived-in and old school as you'd hope Bruce Springsteen's garage would look.
Despite Springsteen's frequently thoughtful insight (the man is a much deeper conversationalist than non-fans might imagine), The Ties That Bind ultimately feels undercooked, partially due to its rather slight running time, but mostly because of the film's alternate approach to its subject matter that largely eschews the traditional "album making-of" doc format. Springsteen's musical collaborators are glaringly conspicuous by their absence (other than in archival photos and video footage) and as much as the 66-year-old icon can normally command any stage or TV screen he appears on, his ruminations that favour the themes of The River's songs over a broader discussion of the album's birthing process end up making for less compelling viewing this time around. It's still well worth a watch for Springsteen diehards and despite my disappointment with the film, I will give a tip of the hat to Zimny for taking a creative risk. Here's hoping that the director and his subject manage a return to the form demonstrated on Wings For Wheels when they inevitably crank out another one of these in 2020, if their current pattern holds - my money's on a look at Born In The U.S.A. next. I am obligated to mention that I'm not quite as beholden to The River as many Springsteen fans are, which skews my appreciation for a discussion of its contents somewhat.
Related Mediaboy Musings posts: my January 2014 review of Springsteen's High Hopes album, August 2012 review of Springsteen's Toronto stop on his Wrecking Ball Tour, March 2012 review of Springsteen's Wrecking Ball album, June 2011 tribute to Clarence Clemons, and November 2010 review of Springsteen's London Calling: Live In Hyde Park Blu-ray