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Bon Jovi docuseries 'Thank You, Goodnight' is an argument for respect

Jon Bon Jovi at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn., in 2013.
David Bergman
Jon Bon Jovi at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn., in 2013.

Hulu's docuseries Thank You, Goodnight: The Bon Jovi Story, spends a lot of time building up the Bon Jovi legend — exploring the band's almost unbelievable 40-plus-year run from playing hardscrabble rock clubs in New Jersey to earning platinum albums and entry into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

But what moved me most in the four-part series was something more revealing: its close look at the struggle by lead singer Jon Bon Jovi to overcome vocal problems which nearly led him to quit the band.

Footage of the singer croaking through vocal exercises, undergoing laser treatments, enduring acupuncture and finally turning to surgery is sprinkled throughout the series, which toggles back and forth between his problems in 2022 and a chronological story of the band's triumphs and tragedies from its earliest days.

Refusing to be Fat Elvis

Jon Bon Jovi was interviewed for <em>Thank You, Goodnight</em>.
/ Disney/Hulu
Jon Bon Jovi was interviewed for Thank You, Goodnight.

Through it all, a question hangs: Will Bon Jovi ever recover enough vocal strength to lead a 40th anniversary tour?

"If I can't be the very best I can be, I'm out," he tells the cameras, still looking a bit boyish despite his voluminous gray hair at age 62. "I'm not here to drag down the legacy, I'm not here for the 'Where are they now?' tour ... I'm not ever gonna be the Fat Elvis ... That ain't happening."

Filmmaker Gotham Chopra — who has also directed docuseries about his father, spiritualist Deepak Chopra, and star quarterback Tom Brady — digs deeply into the band's history, aided by boatloads of pictures, video footage and early recordings provided by the group.

Former Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora in <em>Thank You, Goodnight</em>
/ Disney/Hulu
Former Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora in Thank You, Goodnight

Chopra gets folks from the group's tight inner circle to speak up, including former manager Doc McGhee and guitarist Richie Sambora, who quit the band in 2013. ("Are we telling the truth, or are we going to lie, what are we going to do?" Sambora cracks to his offscreen interviewer. "Let's figure it out.")

But anyone expecting gossipy dish will walk away disappointed. Even major scandals in the band's history are handled with care, including the firing of founding bassist Alec John Such in 1994 (and the admission that his replacement, Hugh McDonald, already had been secretly playing bass parts on their albums for years), drummer Tico Torres' stint in addiction treatment and Sambora's decision to quit midway through a tour in 2013, with no notice to bandmates he had performed alongside for 30 years.

Sambora's explanation: When issues with substance use and family problems led him to miss recording sessions, Bon Jovi got producer John Shanks to play more guitar on their 2013 record What About Now. And Sambora was hurt.

"[Bon Jovi] had the whole thing kinda planned out," Sambora says, "which basically was telling me, um, 'I can do it without you.'"

Building a band on rock anthems

Jon Bon Jovi with guitarist Phil X.
/ Disney/Hulu
Jon Bon Jovi with guitarist Phil X.

The docuseries shows how young New Jersey native John Bongiovi turned a job as a gofer at legendary recording studio The Power Station – owned by a cousin — into a recording of his first hit in the early 1980s, Runaway. His song eventually caught the ear of another little-known artist from New Jersey called Bruce Springsteen.

"The first demo I got of Jon's was a good song," says Springsteen, a longtime friend of Bon Jovi. "I mean, Jon's great talent is these big, powerful pop rock choruses that just demand to be sung by, you know, 20,000 people in an arena."

Thank You, Goodnight shows the band really took off by honing those rock anthems with songwriter Desmond Child, while simultaneously developing videos that showcased their status as a fun, rollicking live band. Hits like You Give Love a Bad Name, Livin' on a Prayer and Wanted: Dead or Alive made them MTV darlings and rock superstars.

Through it all, the singer and bandleader is shown as the group's visionary and spark plug, open about how strategically he pushed the band to write hit songs and positioned them for commercial success.

"It wasn't as though I woke up one morning and was the best singer in the school, or on the block, or in my house," he tells the camera, laughing. "I just had a desire and a work ethic that was always the driving force."

I saw that dynamic up close in the mid-1990s when I worked as a music critic in New Jersey, spending time with Jon Bon Jovi and the band. Back then, his mother ran the group's fan club and was always trying to convince the local rock critic to write about her superstar son – I was fascinated by how the band shrugged off criticisms of being uncool and survived changing musical trends, led by a frontman who worked hard to stay grounded.

Bon Jovi was always gracious and willing to talk; he even introduced me to then-New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman at one of his legendary Christmas charity concerts. (And in a crazy coincidence, the band's backup singer Everett Bradley is an old friend from college.)

I think the docuseries captures Bon Jovi's skill at leading the group through challenges musical and otherwise — from metal's slow fade off the pop charts to the rise of grunge rock — something the singer rarely gets credit for achieving.

Still, much of Thank You, Goodnight feels like an extended celebration of the band and its charismatic frontman, leavened by his earnest effort to regain control of his voice. If you're not a Bon Jovi fan, four episodes of this story may feel like a bit much (I'd recommend at least watching the first and last episodes.)

More than anything, the docuseries feels like an extended argument for something Bon Jovi has struggled to achieve, even amid million selling records and top-grossing concert tours – respect as a legendary rock band.

The audio and digital versions of this story were edited by Jennifer Vanasco.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
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