In a year full of nostalgic Baby Boomer music docs, it’s a joy to watch a legend like Bruce Springsteen reinvent himself. Western Stars, which opens this month after debuting at TIFF in September, brings the Boss’s album of the same name to the big screen. This concert doc bears the soul of its creator.
Western Stars, the album, is a late-career masterpiece for Springsteen that enlivens his abilities as a storyteller with the heart and soul of country music. It’s an elegiac collection full of metaphors of open roads, cowboy boots, and heartaches. The music of Western Stars is tailor-made for the movies with its rich imagery and country twang that pulls at heartstrings without hitting false notes.
Western Stars, the film, features the lone concert of the album, which Springsteen performed in his 100-year-old barn. Accompanied by a 30-piece orchestra and his wife Patti Scialfa, Springsteen plays the album for his closest friends. The result is a front row ticket to the most intimate Springsteen show one could see.
The songs play out in full with Springsteen reflecting on the music between tracks. These interviews and monologues evoke a musician’s asides performed between songs at a concert. Instead of simply standing there and talking as the band catches its breath, Springsteen moves away from the stage, outside the barn, and into the Wild West. Images evoke the movies of John Ford with Springsteen’s tales of cowboys and rugged roads. The staging of the candid moments is intermittently cheesy, like a shot of Springsteen in his old truck as he talks to the camera with a grin that says, “Howdy, partner!” but they’re fair reflections of a life well lived. These interludes provide intimate glimpses into Springsteen’s life as home movies reveal moments with Patti and their kids as Springsteen savours the journey that’s brought him to the creative crossroads of Western Stars.
Springsteen unpacks the significance of the songs while reflecting on his life that’s gone by, noting how the role of the car has changed but that the open road remains a songwriter’s strongest metaphor for freedom. His reflections on bygone Hollywood stars whose cowboy boots have been laid to rest makes the performance of the film’s title track extra poignant. Here is Springsteen stripped and vulnerable. At 70, he knows it’s a blessing to don his boots at the beginning of a new day. Watching Springsteen confront his age and put his fears of loneliness and legacy into song, the film becomes as moving as it is entertaining.
The buy-it-the-minute-you-hear-it soundtrack is fuller and richer than the album. The sweeping orchestration widens the scope of the music and lends it extra gravity as the notes reverberate in the acoustics of Springsteen’s hallowed barn, a warmly inviting setting for the concert. The film is lushly shot and mixed beautifully to let the music take advantage of the theatrical experience.
Pulling double-duty as performer and director, working with long-time collaborator Thom Zimny, Springsteen proves himself a boss on both sides of the camera. Springsteen looks forward when many stars of his generation have their eyes in the rear-view mirror. Western Stars speaks to Springsteen’s reinvention as an artist as he conquers another frontier.