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‘Stevie Van Zandt: Disciple’ traces his life and career from Springsteen to ‘The Sopranos’

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — Sometimes documentaries get all they need from the subject, and in the case of “Stevie Van Zandt: Disciple,” the who’s who of musical luminaries in his orbit don’t hurt either. Chronicling Steven Van Zandt’s colorful life as Bruce Springsteen’s frequent collaborator, “The Sopranos’” weirdest mobster and an outspoken activist, “Disciple” plucks the right notes in a 2 1/2-hour marathon that’s still shorter than an average night’s work for the E Street Band.

Broken into rough chapters, the HBO presentation begins with Van Zandt’s formative musical years in New Jersey, his bromance with Springsteen and the various characters and players that circled in and out of their respective endeavors.

Once Van Zandt had achieved a measure of success as an artist, his political interests consumed him, advocating for the anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa and on behalf of imprisoned Native-American activist Leonard Peltier, among other causes.

Finally, there’s “The Sopranos,” with series creator David Chase having seen Van Zandt during an awards ceremony, and deciding he belonged in the mob drama. “That guy’s gotta be in the show,” Chase recalls thinking in the doc – crafting a character for him when the musician insisted he didn’t want to take a job away from a working actor.

All those elements would be plenty entertaining on their own, frankly, but what really elevates “Disciple” is the dizzying list of bold-faced names that pop up seemingly at the drop of a guitar pick. When Van Zandt mentions the seminal experience of seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan’s show, it’s almost immediately followed by an interview with Paul McCartney. Ditto for other singers that Van Zandt mentions, like Dion DiMucci, Darlene Love and Gary U.S. Bonds.

For many, the foundational part of Van Zandt’s career, despite his solo efforts fronting Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, remains his participation in the E Street Band, even if that meant living to an extent in Springsteen’s shadow. Notably, he chose to strike out on his own at the apex of Springsteen’s success with the “Born in the USA” album, an act of independence, restlessness and, in the eyes of some of his friends and associates interviewed here, borderline insanity.

Now in their 70s, Van Zandt and Springsteen can discuss each other in a way that speaks to the depth of their bond and the creative shorthand they enjoy, having lived lives they could have scarcely imagined back when they were knocking around clubs together in Asbury Park.

The documentary bills Van Zandt as “New Jersey’s most famous consigliere to Bruce Springsteen and Tony Soprano,” but proceeds to show there’s much more to him than that. Like his trademark bandanas, “Disciple” wears its soul, and its love for the music these artists created, brightly displayed where all the world can see it.

“Stevie Van Zandt: Disciple” premieres June 22 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.

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