‘Stevie Van Zandt: Disciple’ explores all stages of an epic rock ‘n’ roll life

by JAY LUSTIG
stevie van zandt disciple review

Stevie Van Zandt, as seen in the new documentary, “Stevie Van Zandt: Disciple.”

“Stevie Van Zandt: Disciple” — the documentary that will debut on HBO, June 22 at 8 p.m., and start streaming on Max then, as well — proceeds chronologically through Van Zandt’s long and multi-faceted career as a musician, songwriter, producer, actor, activist and educator. It is about 2 ½ hours long.

And there was a point, when I was watching it, when I thought to myself, “Geez, we’re now about an hour and 45 minutes into it and we’re still only in the mid-’90s. There is still so much more to get through.” After all, the film had not yet explored “The Sopranos” and “Lilyhammer” … Van Zandt rejoining the E Street Band, and resurrecting his own Disciples of Soul band … his Underground Garage radio show and network … his TeachRock educational initiative.

Bruce Springsteen, in “Stevie Van Zandt: Disciple.”

I could go on, but you get the idea. The Stevie Van Zandt story is a rock ‘n’ roll epic like no other. One gets the sense that this single film could easily have been expanded into, say, a documentary series with eight hour-long episodes.

To his credit, director Bill Teck does cover all the essentials, though there is just so much to Van Zandt’s career that the film inevitably feels more like an overview than a deep dive, at times. Still, it’s a must-watch for any serious E Street Band/Van Zandt fan.

Teck interviews Van Zandt at length, and also has comments from Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Bono, Eddie Vedder, Southside Johnny, Darlene Love, Dion, Gary U.S. Bonds, Springsteen’s manager Jon Landau, “Sopranos” creator David Chase, members of Van Zandt’s family, and others.

Among Springsteen’s memories is his first encounter with Van Zandt. “It was just some mystical thing in the air that happens when you meet somebody who feels about something the same way, with the kind of intensity that you feel about it,” he says. “So he just became my rock ‘n’ roll brother, instantly.”

In the ’80s, Landau tried to push Springsteen in a more polished, accessible direction, while Van Zandt — the E Street Band’s second-in-command, in many ways — wanted to keep the sound raw. For a while, everyone was happy with the balance. But when Springsteen was recording Born in the USA, Landau says, “Bruce started coming a little more in my direction, and Steven wanted to be heard more. And so that arrangement, which worked well on The River, started to become a little dysfunctional. And Stevie just was not happy.”

Van Zandt, of course, left The E Street Band at that point. “We finally made it — and I quit,” he says.

Understandably, the film emphasizes the ’80s. In addition to Born in the USA drama, there is Van Zandt’s creation of his original Disciples of Soul band, and his all-star protest song, “Sun City,” to explore. Teck devotes about 25 minutes to “Sun City,” which still isn’t enough to tell the whole story of it, but is a lot in a movie like this.

In addition to some great concert performances, some behind-the-scenes recording studio footage, and some vintage interview footage with Van Zandt, Teck includes a few major “finds” that hardcore Van Zandt fans will love seeing, such as previously presumed-lost footage from Van Zandt’s wedding (where Springsteen was the best man, Little Richard officiated, and Percy Sledge sang “When a Man Loves a Woman”); a similarly unearthed clip of Van Zandt with Nelson Mandela; and excerpts from “Men Without Women,” a low-budget, black-and-white film Van Zandt made to accompany his 1982 album of that name, but never released widely.

Stevie Van Zandt, interviewed in “Stevie Van Zandt: Disciple.”

In a post-screening question-and-answer session that took place after the film debuted at the Tribeca Festival in New York on June 8, Teck said his overall goal in making it was “to really try to reflect all the aspects of Steven’s life.”

Teck also said that his philosophy about how to approach this documentary was, basically, if Van Zandt is a disciple, “let’s show what he’s a disciple of. So we wanted to go back and show a little bit about when The Beatles came (to America), a little bit about Alan Freed, a little bit about all these different movements in rock ‘n’ roll, and even the politically conscious movement in rock ‘n’ roll. … And really kind of … show and reflect the story of rock ‘n’ roll as it evolves, and then Stevie’s place within (it).”

That place, of course, has evolved in countless surprising ways, over the last 50+ years.

“I’m just gettin’ started,” said Van Zandt, during the question-and-answer session. “I have a whole lot of things that I’m probably never gonna get to …

“I’m never happy with my output. Early on, because of where I grew up, and when I grew up, in the (rock ‘n’ roll) renaissance period, our standards were set very high. So it’s always been about quality over quantity. And to some extent, I regret that, because there just hasn’t been enough quantity, as far as I’m concerned. Not enough stuff done. I’ve got 100 (projects) in my head.”

Here is the film’s trailer:

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