Friday, October 22, 2010

Promise Broken & Promise Kept: The Promise & Trigger

When Bruce Springsteen’s fourth album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, was released in the late spring of 1978, it seemed to make everything else around it seem insignificant. “This isn’t just a great record,” The Who’s Pete Townshend exclaimed upon first listening to it. “It’s a fucking triumph.” Darkness not only arrived after a three-year period of contractual war with his former manager Mike Appel, one that forced the artist into a self-imposed hermitage, it also came on the heels of his worldwide hit album, Born to Run (1975). The consequences of furious expectations and the frustrations of a musician trying to maintain his integrity led to an album that was not only a powerful rock & roll record but also a stunning work of self-revelation.

Rather than simply provide a random collection of songs, Springsteen and his E Street Band crafted a work that took the early aspirations of rock & roll (which they celebrated on Born to Run) and uncovered the possible consequences of acting on those aspirations. As a result, songs like “Racing in the Streets,” which took Martha Reeves & the Vandellas’ infectiously hopeful call of “Dancing in the Streets” and The Beach Boys’ pining reassurances of “Don’t Worry, Baby,” and revealed the grim realism beneath the hope. Sometimes a memorable and exciting rock hook, like the guitar intro from The Yardbirds’ “Heart Full of Soul,” would be used to slice the voyeuristic lust of “Candy’s Room” in half. In songs like “Badlands,” “The Promised Land” and “Prove it all Night,” Springsteen stripped pop drama down to the basic task of one man’s desire to speak of only what feels true to him; to bring adolescent dreams into adult realities.

In the documentary, The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, which is currently showing on HBO, director Thom Zimny attempts to unlock the forces behind this great record. With access to rare and unreleased video footage, shot in the studio between 1976 and 1978, which shows the genesis of the creation of Darkness, Zimny sets out to the tell the story of this album’s creation. Unfortunately, Zimny doesn’t really have a story to tell. Instead, he tries to let the clips and band interviews tell it for him. While he does chronicle the events that lead to Darkness on the Edge of Town, the film gets bogged down with insider fascination. Zimny, who also worked on Live in New York City, a half-hour HBO Springsteen documentary and directed Wings for Wheels: The Making of Born to Run (which won him a Grammy), is now Springsteen’s personal archivist. The Promise is more an archivist’s dream of gathering tidbits than a critical appraisal of Springsteen’s work.

While it’s fascinating to watch the interaction between Springsteen and the band working out an endless selection of songs (many of which didn’t make the album, but will soon be part of a new box set released next month), Zimny doesn’t go beyond the studio camaraderie into the realm of the imagination. Great art always transports us, but Zimny never guesses as to why. He documents data and rarely suggests larger issues. For instance, Darkness on the Edge of Town came on the heels of Elvis Presley’s death a year earlier. While Zimny does allow for the influence of punk on the record (punk also being something of a response to Elvis’s demise), he doesn’t show how Springsteen’s battle for the control of his songs from Mike Appel was also a powerful reaction to Elvis Presley’s death. It put fear in his heart that an American original who lost control of his art and talent ended up dead on a toilet. “Mike Appel thought I was Elvis and he was Colonel Parker,” Springsteen told critic Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone after Darkness was released. “But I wasn’t Elvis and he wasn’t the Colonel.”

The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town isn’t so much a hagiographic piece as it is an innocuous one. For an album that had such a strong impact on pop music in 1978 (and which fuelled his later mass audience success in 1984 with Born in the USA), Thom Zimny’s approach is that of the casual observer, happy to be in the room, watching everything - yet seeing nothing.

Molly Parker and Tracey Wright

There’s nothing casual about the performance the late actress Tracy Wright gives in her final role in Bruce McDonald’s Trigger. Already understanding that she was struck with terminal cancer before doing the picture, she plays the part of a former legendary hard rocker with a tough resilience that neither armours her character, nor becomes drowned in pathos. Wright seizes the part with a bald determination, not so much to beat the reaper, but to let us know the cost of what he was taking. She takes the movie in her teeth and leaves nothing on the bone. It’s the fiercest performance she’s ever given - and it's her last.

Trigger is essentially a typical two-hander, written by playwright Daniel MacIvor (House), about two former female rock stars, Kat (Molly Parker) and Vic (Tracy Wright), who made up the group Trigger. Where music initially brought them together, their acerbic personalities tore them apart. They meet years later for dinner, having gone separate ways, when Kat is in town to set up a concert. Where Kat is now an A&R type out of LA, Vic is still the bohemian struggling to escape the ravages of drug addiction. Their collision course brings up unresolved issues, yet it also firmly establishes the ties that bind them together.

Daniel MacIvor’s writing has always seemed less like people talking and more like characters enunciating. But McDonald, who in Roadkill (1989), Highway 61 (1991) and Hard Core Logo (1996), showed a perfect feel for musical rhythms, has the actresses glide over the bumps in the dialogue. Molly Parker is the perfect sparring partner for Wright because she is one of the most translucent of talented actresses. No matter how many layers of defenses she wears, Parker lets you see the core of what those layers are hiding. Kat seeks refuge in a business that now disconnects her from the love she once had for the music (which is also connected to the ambivalent love she has for Vic). Vic, on the other hand, is a little like Eric Clapton, one who seeks boring normalcy for fear that passion will once again re-ignite destructive addiction.

Although the battles in Trigger invoke the sentimental dust-ups in films like Old Acquaintance (1943), The Turning Point (1977) and Rich and Famous (1981), there’s nothing mawkish in the performances here. There’s nothing sloppy about McDonald’s direction either (except in a couple of ill-conceived bits of magic realism). He essentially gets out of the way and lets Parker and Wright have it out. Trigger may be a conventional story about unconventional people, but Tracey Wright’s performance cuts through the artifice. She stares defiantly out from the screen like a ravaged siren, maybe beaten, but definitely not bowed.

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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