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Now Here’s a Battle of the Bands: Andrea Bocelli vs. Bruce Springsteen
November 27, 2015  | By David Hinckley
 

Okay, they’re not actually battling. But by coincidence, they both have TV specials airing at 9 p.m. ET Friday night.
 
Andrea Bocelli: Cinema, in the PBS “Great Performances” series, features the famed tenor singing 16 songs from classic movies, with guests like Ariana Grande and David Foster to reinforce the fact it’s an evening of pop songs, not arias.
 
The Ties That Bind, which airs on HBO, essentially serves up an hour of Springsteen talking about his revered 1980 album The River. He sings a few of the songs, accompanied by his own guitar, and the documentary also includes a handful of short vintage clips from the studio and concerts.
 
Both shows are a nice break from football (and maybe from family) in the middle of the Thanksgiving weekend. Both artists long ago secured an enduring place in their chosen musical fields, and these shows are solid presentations that give us additional insight in the artistry.
 
With Bocelli (left) that means hearing an aspect of his repertoire that isn’t ordinarily showcased, while Springsteen mostly provides context and backstory to a group of songs his fans have loved – well, mostly loved – for 35 years.
 
Bocelli clearly chose his songs carefully, so don’t expect to hear music from The Hunger Games. He goes back to the golden age of popular standards for Cheek to Cheek, popularized by Fred Astaire in the 1935 musical Top Hat, and travels as far forward as The Music of the Night from Phantom of the Opera and Nelle Tue Mani from Gladiator.
 
Some of the songs were breakout hits from a movie, like Moon River from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, while others blended into the movie itself, like Por Una Cabeza from Scent of a Woman.
 
He sings Lara’s Theme from Doctor Zhivago and the theme from The Godfather.
 
Absent, perhaps surprisingly to some, is My Heart Will Go On from Titanic.
 
With a full orchestra behind him, Bocelli belts out these songs like, well, an operatic tenor. A few times that power threatens to swamp the songs, but he keeps everything good-natured enough so those moments pass.
 
The production also is designed to underscore the spirit of the songs. During Cheek to Cheek, several couples whirl in from the wings and dance on the stage as Bocelli sings.
 
That said, Cinema doesn’t seem designed for the casual fan who may only vaguely remember how each of these songs served its movie. It’s a serious black-tie musical presentation, not “name that tune.”
 
Springsteen, meanwhile, is reflecting on The River in conjunction with a massive box set being released Friday. The set includes the album, out-takes, concert film and other DVD material, all to commemorate the 35th anniversary of its release.
 
Springsteen talks about how he spent months writing the album and putting it together as a single disc, only to pull it back and swap in a whole batch of new songs as a double disc.
 
While the process doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, Springsteen says he always knew what he wanted the album to be: looser than his earlier work, with a wider variety of material that captured both the excitement of his live shows and his growing desire to write character stories from an adult point of view.
 
That explains how the intense ballads The River and Independence Day ended up on the same release with the rocker Sherry Darling and Hungry Heart, which became his first radio hit single.
 
While the album The River quickly became a favorite with many fans, other fans – particularly some long-timers -- felt he left many of his best new songs off the double disc.
 
There was room for that discussion, since he ultimately rejected 33 songs he wrote and recorded during The River sessions.
 
And now, Springsteen seems to agree with at least some of that argument.
 
He did leave off many of the best songs, he says, notably including the anti-nuclear rocker Roulette.
 
He also talks a lot here about how hard he worked to get the sound he wanted. Some of the records in the 1970s were too controlled and sterile, he says, so he wanted The River to be “a noisy record,” with more ambient sound, harking back to early rockers like Hound Dog.
 
At the same time, he also wanted to write about what was happening in his life. He was thinking about the things grownups think about and do, he says, not having to add that as a rock ‘n’ roller, he’d put those thoughts off for a while. As he was writing The River, he had just turned 30.
 
His reflections on individual songs will likely interest viewers in direct proportion to their familiarity with and liking for those songs.
 
Those who know and care will hear him say, for instance, that he sees Independence Day, a song in which his character explains to his father why he’s leaving home, as a “discussion.” Some listeners may suggest it’s more of a declaration, since we only hear the character’s voice, not the father’s.
 
While he talks about how expanding the album to two discs made room for Hungry Heart, he doesn’t talk about how the song became more palatable to radio programmers because his voice was sped up by engineer Chuck Plotkin, taking away some of its previous roughness.
 
He also doesn’t talk about how songs like Wreck on the Highway directly foreshadowed his next album, Nebraska, a largely somber collection of lean, spare songs that ushered in a different and more diverse era in his music.
 
And that’s fine. He doesn’t have to address that here. It’s enough that he talks about how, when he started writing The River, he was listening to a lot of classic country artists like George Jones, Johnny Cash and Roy Acuff.
 
Acuff, of course, had a huge hit several decades earlier with a song called, yup, Wreck on the Highway.
 
While it was a different song, Roy’s wreck had the same effect as Bruce’s: causing the singer to reflect on life and mortality.
 
You could make a persuasive case that Bruce has been doing that ever since. And, like here, doing it well.

 
 
 
 
 
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