How popular was Bruce Springsteen at the Toronto International Film Festival on Tuesday?
So popular that fans began lining up overnight for rush tickets to his “Mavericks” conversation with Ed Norton, with one holding up a sign offering $300 for a single ticket.
So popular that an hour before the event began, lines snaked through the small upper lobby of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, causing such a crush that one fan fainted and had to be attended by the three doctors who happened to be waiting in the line.
So popular that TIFF filled not only the 470-seat theater, but also a second theater to handle the overflow.
So popular that the festival had no problem taking an event sponsored by Blackberry and instituting a strict policy prohibiting tweeting, camera phones and indeed any use of cellular or mobile devices, going so far as to kick a couple of audience members out for checking their email.
(In the overflow room, though, tweeting was allowed.)
And that was just the first stop on Springsteen’s de facto Toronto Domination Tour, which went on to include a raucously received gala premiere of director Thom Zimny’s “The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town,” a documentary that started its life as a proposed extra disc on a deluxe boxed reissue of the 1978 Springsteen album, but subsequently landed a prime spot in the TIFF lineup and a deal for an HBO broadcast.
“It’s a very special night for us,” said festival co-director Cameron Bailey when he delivered the opening remarks at the gala. “I don’t have to tell you why.”
The crowd immediately signaled that he indeed he didn’t, filling the room with a traditional chorus that goes something like this: “Broooooooooce!”
TIFF’s documentary and Mavericks programmer Thom Powers made a point of trying to tie Springsteen to the movies in his introductory remarks before the Springsteen/Norton conversation. Though he overstated the case a little bit, the ensuing hour-and-15-minute conversation did touch on the influence that films had on the young musician who made “Darkness on the Edge of Town” in the aftermath of his breakthrough album, “Born to Run,” more than 30 years ago.
“Martin Scorsese once said that the artist’s job is to get the audience to care about your obsessions,” said Springsteen, who pointed out that the artists who succeed are often the ones who go to extremes, “who care enough to get crazy about it.”
He nodded toward Norton, a friend for more than a decade. “It’s the way you work,” Springsteen told the notoriously difficult actor. “You get nuts.”
Norton laughed. “There are many who will attest to that,” he conceded.
Springsteen’s camp had asked Norton to conduct the interview; the actor was due to attend the fest already on behalf of the movie “Stone,” in which he stars with Robert De Niro.
Norton is also a longtime Springsteen fan who has attended numerous shows and frequently requested songs – including one instance, Norton said, when he was scolded backstage by Springsteen guitarist Steve Van Zandt for screwing up the band’s set list.
(The actual problem, it turned out, is that Springsteen had scrawled “Ed” next to one song title on his handwritten set list – but the band thought that he had written the notation for E flat, and was scrambling to transpose the rarely-performed song into that key.)
If Norton was an enthusiastic interviewer, he’s clearly spent more time answering than asking questions: he tended to ramble on before awkwardly trying to phrase a question, not the best approach when dealing with a subject who is notorious for his own lengthy, meandering answers.
But the conversation, besides being Toronto’s hottest ticket, was also a fascinating look at Springsteen’s views of the creative process, which is also the subject of Zimny’s film.
Among the topics covered:
The darkness in Springsteen music. Norton asked where Springsteen got the idea that rock and pop music could be used to explore dark subject matter; Springsteen immediately brought up blues songs (“some of the darkest music you’ve ever heard”) and the way Bob Dylan caught the underlying menace in 1960s America. “I think 1960s small-town America was very Lynchian,” he said. “Everything was there – but underneath, everything was rumbling. Dylan took that rumbling and pushed it to the surface.”
His naivete and inexperience. “I was the only person I’d ever met who had a record contract,” said Springsteen of his early days. “None of the E Street Band that I knew of had ever been on an airplane until Columbia Records sent us to Los Angeles. We saw them pass over, but we’d never been on one.”
The influence of Hollywood.Though he was inspired mostly by rock ‘n’ roll radio, Springsteen said that he began to be inspired by films in the 1970s, often under the influence of his manager Jon Landau, who had served as a film critic for Rolling Stone magazine.
“Popular pictures in the mid 1970s were dark, bloody pictures that dealt with the dark side of the American experience,” said Springsteen, who remembers Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro screening “Mean Streets” for him on the 1975 “Born to Run” tour.
He also lauded films from John Ford, as well as American films that ranged from film noir of the ‘40s and ‘50s to pulpy genre flicks from the late ‘70s: “Rolling Thunder,” “Gun Crazy,” “Jackson County Line” …
“[My] records were cinematic,” he said. “I was … looking for fuel in other places, in books and movies.”
The pitfalls of stardom. Not only did the success of “Born to Run” leave him frightened that “it’s possible for your identity to be co-opted,” but the example of previous rock stars who’d flamed out or succumbed to lifestyle excesses made him run in the opposite direction.
“I looked at the maps that some of the people who went before me had drawn, and then went off into ‘Here There Be Dragons,’” he said. “The world was flat to them, and they fell off. And I didn’t want to do that.”
The current competition. “If you’re good, you’re always looking over your shoulder,” he said. “That’s the life – that’s the gunslinger’s life. Yes, you are very fast, my friend. But there’s some kid in his garage, and about 10 minutes from now …. ”
Assembling “Darkness on the Edge of Town.”The sessions that produced the album, he said, also yielded a vast number of happy songs – all of which were eventually cast aside in favor of a focused batch of material.
“’Darkness’ was an angry record,” he said. “I took the 10 toughest songs that I had, and I didn’t want to cut that.”
But making the record was a brutal experience for all concerned, with Springsteen spending three months on a song he’d then discard, obsessing over details until everyone in the studio was driven to distraction.
“The way we did it was so hard we often felt that we were doing it wrong,” he said. “You look back and say, ‘No, we weren’t doing it wrong. We were just doing it the only way we knew how.’”
The wisdom that comes with experience. Asked by Norton what the current 60-year-old Springsteen would say to the 27-year-old model, Springsteen said he wasn’t sure he’d advise a different approach.
When he was turning 40, remembered Springsteen, he asked a 60-year-old doorman he knew for advice. “He said, ‘Don’t worry,’” said Springsteen. “That’s good advice for living, maybe, but I’m not sure it’s good for working. I think I’d tell [his 27-year-old self], ‘Worry your ass off about that s---, because it matters.”
He laughed. “Looking back, I can say maybe it should have been easier. But if it had been easier, it wouldn’t have been as hard. And hard was important.”
Many of those themes are also explored in Zimny’s film, “The Promise,” which Springsteen introduced at the gala that followed. Clearly designed for Springsteen fans who care about alternate versions of “Factory” and sound mixes of “Prove It All Night,” it combines priceless footage recorded in the studio between 1976 and 1978 with extensive reminisces from Springsteen, his band and others involved in the album, and the lawsuit with his former manager that preceded it.
The film gives a sense of the ways in which creativity can be tested and challenged, and the ways in which a strong artist can persevere – and by the time it comes to a close with a montage of faces set to the final section of “Racing in the Street,” the finest instrumental coda in Springsteen’s repertoire, it’s hard to imagine that any fan won’t be moved.
Before the film began, Springsteen thanked his fans in attendance and said that he saw his first three albums as a prologue of sorts and "Darkness," his fourth, as "the beginning of this conversation" he and his fans have been having ever since. "It's been one of the great joys of my life," he said.
Then he returned to the theme of ambition, of his drive 32 years ago to establish himself as an artist, not just another rock casualty or one-hit wonder.
"More than rich, more than famous, more than happy, I wanted to be great," he said.
Postscript: The next morning, on the sidewalk in front of the TIFF Bell Lightbox theater, a group of festival volunteers compared notes on how the Springsteen Invasion had gone more smoothly than they'd anticipated.
"He only had two cars, and it was no big deal," said one. "The only thing that confused me was when everybody was yelling 'Brooooce!' I'd never heard of that before -- I thought they were booing."