It begins with a Langston Hughes quote about letting “America be” what it has not yet become and the tinkling of the piano that opens Bruce Springsteen’s “Growin’ Up.”
A parade of testimonials follow, about a “honky tonk town” with a sound borrowed from soul, pop, rock and “the west side of the tracks,” music formed in a tiny corner of the Jersey Shore, where future musicians were exposed to the greats of jazz, blues and rock and went on to form a seminal rock act and the ensemble long labeled “the best bar band in America.
“Something happened here that wasn’t happening any place else,” Bruce Springsteen intones, “and that mattered.”
Like the postcard and the E-Street Band album title say, “Greetings from Asbury Park,” a square mile of New Jersey that became a musical melting pot which, to this day, has supplanted whatever image this hard-luck town had before.
“Asbury Park: Riot Redemption Rock’n Roll” recounts that history, from the town’s founding and resort-community heyday to the day the racial fissures there opened up and changed it forever.
Documentary filmmaker Tom Jones rounded up every legendary musician to ever call the place home, historians, musicians who never got famous, civil rights leaders, developers and even a former mayor to tell this story of the ferment that gave Asbury Park its musical moment.
Many cities over the decades have taken their place at the podium — from New Orleans and Memphis, to Nashville, Seattle and Athens, Ga. to Minneapolis.
But none were as tiny as this one, and few have made it as much a part of their musical identity.
It’s a town that long ago split into an “East Side” (of the tracks) and a “West Side,” where once Italian immigrant and African labor for the resort hotels lived, where jazz and blues clubs held sway and where a still largely-segregated city’s 40% African American population mostly lives.
Historians talk about the town’s sanctified founding in the 1870s, and its slow turn towards entertainment, hotels and bars to make itself a favorite summer getaway for New Yorkers and Philadelphians, and a favorite concert stop from the jazz age to the 1960s.
“You’d go to Ocean Grove to pray and Asbury Park to party,” Southside Johnny Lyons remembers. He fronted the great bar band Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes.
Little Steven Van Zandt, cradling a cuddly Papillon in his arms, walks us upstairs to the abandoned bar that was the Upstage Club, where every musician in a music-crazy town met and jammed after hours.
He met Bruce Springsteen there, and the future “Boss” first heard several members of his band in jam sessions on that stage, sessions the very young Springsteen (mop-topped and shirtless in still photographs, heard on tape) would often lead into the wee hours of the morning.
He had a thing for Alvin Lee’s song “Coming Home,” which they’d play in 30 minute-long jams at the end of the long night as it bled into the dawn.
Springsteen is interviewed in the Upstage (long closed) as well, and he and assorted bandmates, past and present — David Sancious, Garry Tallent, Edward Carter and Max Weinberg — press hard the point that being an integrated blues rock band in a slow-to-integrate town was no big deal to them.
White musicians had long thought nothing of ducking into The Orchid Lounge to hear jazz or B.B. King or Howlin’ Wolf. The phrase “white privilege” might creep into your mind as you hear this.
On July 4, 1970, they got a rude awakening, one the town hasn’t shaken off to this day. Asbury Park erupted into a riot and huge chunks of it were burned to the ground.
“It got weird for a minute there,” Little Steven says.
But “a minute there” grew into decades as the city slowly got its musical mojo back, as affluent gays adopted neighborhoods and gentrified them after coming in to see the acts at a new, wildly popular drag queen club. The African American “West Side” of town? Still mostly vacant lots, empty storefronts and limited horizons.
It turns out, the burgeoning music scene of the late ’60s had no African American element. Opportunities to play and hear music in that vital underprivileged half of the city dried-up and was another part of why the populace rioted.
So there’s just enough here on that “riot” and “redemption” part of the story to let us know there’s a LOT that’s being left out or sugar-coated, that musicians talking up color-blindness weren’t really privy to the real tensions in “My Hometown,” and haven’t done a whole lot to change that in the decades since. Yes, African American music brought African American culture into the pop mainstream. And?
“Riot Redemption Rock’n Roll” is mainly about Springsteen & Co. and Southside Johnny and is built for their fans. And that material, the early days of The Stone Pony beachside music club, the colorful figures backing the local music scene, including a couple of hairdressers who opened The Upstage Club, one a proto-punk singer named Margaret, front woman for Margaret and the Distractions — the Upstage’s house band.
The optimistic film gives us a celebratory concert at its climax and reasons to hope the city is on the mend, with hope creeping even into its blighted West Side.
But its real value is as an oral and visual history of Springsteen, where he met his bandmates and the musical milieu he was fortunate enough to grow up in.
“Asbury Park: Riot Redemption Rock’n Roll” opens May 22 and 29 in select cinemas (hit the link for theaters and ticket info).
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Bruce Springsteen, Little Steven Van Zandt, Southside Johnny Lyon, narrated by Big Joe Henry
Credits:Directed by Tom Jones. A Trafalgar release.
Running time: 1:28