FILM REVIEW – WESTERN STARS. With Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa. Written by Bruce Springsteen. Directed by Thom Zimny and Bruce Springsteen. Rated PG for profanity. 83 minutes.
Bruce Springsteen has said in interviews that this companion film to his 19th studio album WESTERN STARS was intended as the completion of a three-part project that began with his 2016 best-selling memoir “Born To Run” and continued through his long-running one-man-show “Springsteen On Broadway.” What these efforts all have in common is a surprising candor from the usually cagey, press-shy superstar, stepping out of his longtime comfort zones for frank confessions and self-assessments in unfamiliar artistic forms. Indeed Springsteen, who turned 70 in September, makes his (co-)directorial debut with this compact, finely-tuned concert film. So who says you can’t teach an old Boss new tricks?
The long-gestating album was released back in June to some of the best reviews Springsteen’s gotten in decades. Miles away from E Street and more expansive than his sparse solo records, “Western Stars” is a collection of terse character sketches accompanied by sweeping orchestral arrangements that aurally unfurl with an almost cinematic grandeur. The songs attempt to reconcile the two sides of Springsteen’s – and in a sense, America’s – mythology (the two have become pretty much interchangeable anyway) pitting born-to-run loners on the open road against a longing for hearth, home, and community. It’s a record full of hitchhikers, wayfarers, and roadside bars where everybody can feel welcome for a few hours.
“19 albums in and I’m still writing about cars,” Springsteen quips in the film’s opening moments. The bulk of the movie is “Western Stars,” performed in its entirety by the singer, his wife Patti Scialfa and a 30-piece orchestra inside a massive, 100-year-old barn on the couple’s New Jersey ranch home. Shot in collaboration with Springsteen’s longtime videographer Thom Zimny, it’s an excellent performance that doesn’t radically reinvent any of the arrangements from the album but rather draws us closer inside them, with the movie theater surround setup really bringing out the stabbing strings and distant, lonely horns. The boss sounds raspier than he does on the record, putting an extra splash of whiskey on lyrics like, “She liked her guys a little greasy and beneath her pay grade.”
The men in these songs are all worn out and broken, like the title track’s former big-screen cowboy now doing Viagra commercials who’ll tell the old story about how John Wayne once shot him in a movie if you’ll buy the next round, or the washed-up stuntman who both begins and ends his song with a litany of medical mishaps. Springsteen’s sneakiest structural trick on the record is that the orchestra allows access to their inner lives, the soaring sounds conjuring vast expanses and dreams of escape, only more often than not the music melts away and Springsteen circles back to repeating the same opening lines, leaving us with the feeling that these guys have traveled so many miles while getting nowhere at all.
I suppose every song anyone’s ever written is at least a little autobiographical, but these characters still are most assuredly not Bruce Springsteen, which makes his inspirational, interstitial introductions an occasionally awkward fit. Each song is proceeded by a couple of minutes spent with shots of Springsteen on his farm, doing very Springsteen-ish things like driving old cars, looking at horses and putting on his cowboy hat in slow-motion. Via voice-over narration he talks us through the metaphors and personal journeys in the songs you’re about to hear, a nice but completely unnecessary gesture as the lyrics are already so beautifully written they require no explanation.
At their worst these chats sound like a Springsteen magnetic poetry kit, with “faith,” “work,” “perseverance,” and “dreams” all jumbled up in front of stock footage of empty highways. I love the guy but he can get a little airy sometimes, and his writing’s always been best when grounded in the everyday. That’s why the movie’s most satisfying introduction is to the album’s closing track “Moonlight Motel,” during which Bruce brings out home movie footage of he and Scialfa’s honeymoon, reminiscing about the early days of their relationship when they “had to sneak around” (Springsteen was still married to model Julianne Phillips) and would secretly meet up for picnics on a New York City bench. He’d bring a brown bag full of beer.
There’s something so beautifully precise about that detail of the six-pack in a paper bag, not to mention the mental image of rock’s biggest superstar sneaking beery lunches in plain sight on 21st street with his backup singer. It says so much more than the sermonizing that sometimes swamps the spoken word sections of “Western Stars,” and like the wonderful songs herein is a potent reminder of this writer’s once-in-a-generation gift for turning the quotidian into poetry.•••
Over the past twenty years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.