Bruce Springsteen’s unrivaled stage presence comes across remarkably well in the film “Western Stars,” as he performs his recent album in its entirety. But it is the brief, meditative, and confessional vignettes he uses to introduce each song that reveal just how much the entire album serves as his own version of St. Augustine’s “Confessions.”
Following the release of his remarkable, and remarkably different, latest album, Western Stars, Bruce Springsteen continues at the age of 70 to pursue new types of projects. This time, in an effort to give as many fans as possible the experience of hearing new material “live” without embarking on an actual tour, Mr. Springsteen, along with his co-director, Thom Zimny, has chosen to film a full performance of Western Stars and distribute it as a theatrical release through Warner Brothers. The album itself is a departure for Mr. Springsteen, modeling its sound on Southern California pop music of the 1960s and 1970s and incorporating in addition to guitars, drums, and keyboard, a classical chamber orchestra.
In this big-screen version, it’s a delight both to hear and see the orchestra, whose big sound, Mr. Springsteen says in a post-script to the film, he has always admired. The strings and brass often create a sweeping, wide-open sound, reminiscent of the musical scores of the Western films beloved by Mr. Springsteen. And the classical instruments also provide for more intimate moments, as we get to watch a cellist perform the jaunty theme that opens “The Wayfarer” and the first violin play a troubled solo at the close of “Stones.” As an encore, the concert concludes with Mr. Springsteen’s rousing version of Glen Campbell’s string-infused “Rhinestone Cowboy.” Throughout, Mr. Springsteen’s unrivaled stage presence comes across remarkably well on film, so much so that one almost forgets that the performance is not actually “live” in real time.
The venue for the performance is a 100-year-old barn on Mr. Springsteen’s estate in the horse country of central New Jersey, a perfectly appropriate setting for an album that tells the tales of old men who have gone West in order to put the ghosts of their past to rest. Mr. Springsteen has created brief, meditative, and confessional vignettes to introduce each song, and these serve to enhance the power of each song and to further bind the album together thematically. During the vignettes, we hear in the background orchestral musical variations on each upcoming song, composed by Mr. Springsteen, and we see old home-movie footage of average Americans experiencing the rituals of mid-20th-century life: families celebrating birthdays and weddings, and mourning loved ones at funerals; working men drinking themselves drunk at the local bar; kids playing in the streets.
Western Stars is the third in a triptych of autobiographical projects upon which Mr. Springsteen has recently embarked, which began with his 2016 autobiography, Born To Run, and continued with last year’s Springsteen on Broadway. Mr. Springsteen describes the new film as a “love letter” to his wife of three decades, Patti Scialfa, and indeed Western Stars—album and film—is a deeply personal musical statement. (Included is some brief, previously misplaced Super-8 footage from the couple’s honeymoon at a log cabin.) Though the iconic singer-songwriter has reminded us in recent interviews that the details of the stories told on the album’s 13 songs are, of course, imagined, he also tells us that, like all artists, he draws on veins of personal experience in terms of the emotions and thoughts of his protagonists.
And these protagonists are older men, burdened by their past sins, who continue to struggle with and run from their guilt, and who seek relief through hard work, and redemption through relationships with others… especially through that one, meaningful romantic relationship that has eluded them. Mr. Springsteen says at the outset of the film that Western Stars reflects the two strands that pervade the American experience: rugged individualism and the quest for community. The two songs that open the album/film are “Hitch Hikin’ and “The Wayfarer,” both reflecting the spirit of the restless American Wanderer Above the Clouds, and the excitement of the seemingly endless possibilities of the open road. But with the third song, “Tucson Train,” we visit a man who has run away from a difficult relationship, only to find that he wants to change himself and fix things with his woman. The title song follows—”the heart of the album,” Mr. Springsteen says—and things turn darker as we hear from a broken, old B-Western movie actor, hoping perhaps, with Tennyson’s Ulysses that, as “old age hath yet his honour and his toil” he might still “sail beyond the senset, and the baths/ Of all the western stars, until I die.”
All but two of the remaining songs deal with failed, broken, or lost romantic relationships: “Drive Fast,” “Chasin” Wild Horses,” “Sundown,” “Somewhere North of Nashville,” There Goes My Miracle,” “Moonlight Motel”; the exceptions are “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe,” which celebrates a Western bar as a communal gathering place, and “Hello Sunshine,” in which the protagonist, who might well actually be Mr. Springsteen, warns that “you can get a little too fond of the blues” and that if “you fall in love with lonely, you end up that way.” Mr. Springsteen revealed his lifelong battle with depression in his autobiography, and in this song he seems to admit to questioning the wayfarer-lifestyle he had embraced as a younger man:
You know I always liked my walking shoes
But you can get a little too fond of the blues
You walk too far, you walk away
Hello sunshine, won’t you stay?
If this song is lyrically the most autobiographical of all the songs on the album, Western Stars the film allows us to see and hear from Mr. Springsteen himself just how much the entire album serves as his own version of St. Augustine’s Confessions. Early on in one of the vignettes, Mr. Springsteen speaks of how for the first few decades of his life, he tried to hurt people who loved him. “That was a sin,” Mr. Springsteen admits. There are many moments where tears clearly well up in Mr. Springsteen’s eyes. As he sings the opening lines of “Chasin’ Wild Horses,” he visibly winces at what we can safely assume is a personal memory:
Guess it was somethin’ I shouldn’t have done
Guess I regret it now
Ever since I was a kid
Tryin’ to keep my temper down is like
Chasin’ wild horses, chasin’ wild horses
When Mr. Springsteen’s wife, Ms. Scialfa, joins him on the chorus of “Stones,” a song about faithlessness in a relationship, the glances that the couple give each other are charged with deep meaning as they sing, “Those are only the lies you’ve told me.” No one knows the line between reality and artistry in such moments, and indeed no one knows the secrets of a particular marriage.
“How do you change yourself?” Mr. Springsteen wonders aloud, and he acknowledges that the siren call of the American West has lured him, as it has previous generations, to a new land where old sins can supposedly be cast off; in the 1990s, newly-married to Ms. Scialfa, and having just had broken up the New Jersey-based E Street Band, Mr. Springsteen himself had “gone West” to California. But like the men of Western Stars, Mr. Springsteen seemed to realize that one’s transgressions and failings can never be left behind. “I’ve done a lot of that kind of running,” Mr. Springsteen, the writer of the hit song “Born To Run,” confesses in the film. He returned to New Jersey in the 2000s and now lives less than ten miles from where he grew up.
The message of Western Stars is perhaps summed up best by two images, one at the outset of the film and the other at its conclusion: First, we see an image of Mr. Springsteen’s hand on the wheel of a car as he drives on a lonely Western road; and near the end, we see this same image of his hand, but this time his wife’s hand gently descends upon and embraces it.
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