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ILLUMINATING BRUCE'S STARS
9/13/19

By Phil Gallo

Over the last decade, Bruce Springsteen has taken control of his legacy via a memoir, Broadway show, focused tours, box sets and interviews with the mainstream press that find him delving into the “why?” of his art deeper than ever before.

Western Stars, his 19th and most recent album, appeared to be a diversion. Here is, for the first time, Springsteen in a full orchestral setting playing music inspired by records from the ’60s and ’70s that he and his E Street buddies may well have scoffed at when they were new. The shorthand for the album was “an homage to Jimmy Webb and the Southern California soft rock of the late ’60s and early ’70s.” That angle missed the lyrical side, an omission Springsteen and Thom Zimny’s film Western Stars works to clarify.

The pic premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday, and Warner Bros. will release it theatrically on 10/25. To attract an audience beyond diehards, they’ll need to emphasize the film’s spoken elements over the music.

As directors, first-timer Springsteen and his longtime filmmaking partner Zimny have made a film like none of the other Springsteen films. Where Springsteen on Broadway was a tight, extreme closeup, Western Stars is an expansive view of an individual within multiple communities. It complements Springsteen’s assertion about the two sides of American life rubbing up against one another every day—individual freedom and communal life. Western Stars wears that ethos like a badge of honor.

At its core Western Stars is a concert film—the 13 tracks from the album—along with a cover of a Glen Campbell song that Webb didn’t write— performed in a barn on Springsteen’s New Jersey ranch. Viewed in a screening room, the orchestra sounds more vibrant and three-dimensional than on the record, the banjo bites more intensely and Springsteen’s percussive guitar strums pound with added urgency. The performances are sharp and well-recorded.

The attraction, here, though—and this is where it connects with Springsteen’s continued career summarization—is in the interstitials where Bruce not only explains the ideas behind the songs, but also the philosophies and learned truths about life that went into each lyric.

It boils down to aging. Here he is, turning 70 this month, and he’s looking back at what it took for him to make marriage and fatherhood work, where he made mistakes in how he treated others and other flaws in his character. The people who populate the Western Stars songs are older too—the fading star of Western movies, the hitchhiker, train passengers and drivers looking for a different tomorrow.

He even talks about metaphors, frustrated, for example, that cars don’t represent freedom and forward progress the way they did when “Thunder Road” was written. In our current political state, he suggests, we’re no longer moving forward. “A lot of the time we’re just moving,” he says.

Springsteen has said he won’t tour this album, but the film just makes you want to see him with a four-piece and an orchestra of a couple dozen musicians playing Western Stars’ better songs, a few cuts from The Rising, “Streets of Philadelphia” and perhaps a few early songs that would lend themselves to this type of setting. It would sell out easily.  

    

Springsteen has said he won’t tour this album, but the film just makes you want to see him with a four-piece and an orchestra of a couple dozen musicians playing Western Stars’ better songs, a few cuts from The Rising, “Streets of Philadelphia” and perhaps a few early songs that would lend themselves to this type of setting. It would sell out easily.