Springsteen shoots the lights out in Western Stars
Western Stars is the title of Bruce Springsteen’s 19th studio album, which was released in 2019 – the year the singer turned 70 years old. One might question the necessity of making a film about it but it’s a rare gift to gain better insight into the music, the lyrics, and the emotions which fill the songs.
Springsteen narrates the film, which combines stage performances – with a 30-piece orchestra – in the more than 100-year-old barn on his ranch with its cathedral ceiling lit with fairy lights with personal footage from decades past (notably with his wife Patti Scialfa, who also appears on stage with him, but not on the album).
There are evocative scenes of wide open spaces that were shot in Joshua Tree National Park in California, and low-key moody angles of contemplation, reflection and introspection.
In this manner, Springsteen introduces each song, musing on themes of isolation and connectedness and how they contradict yet complement each other; the ways of the past; the word sketches of his cowboy and other characters who inhabit the songs; and personal recollections and candid observations about himself and his flaws.
With titles like The Wayfarer, Chasin’ Wild Horses, Tucson Train and Somewhere North of Nashville, Springsteen’s intention with this album is clear as it delivers a gentle country-tinged sound of the past.
It washes over you like warm golden sunshine, the kind you get just before it sets, and his spoken words are as if he is talking directly to you, it’s that relatable. It’s also why he’s The Boss, always has been, always will, and he can still remain relevant in his 80th decade even with a nod to the past.
Despite decades of superstardom, Springsteen understands that new work can be a tough sell even to the most dedicated fans, says IndieWire. “Here, he didn’t have a tour to entice them to experience Western Stars in person. And he knows that, despite decades as a superstar, his music is no longer favored by FM radio. So he turned to another beloved medium: film.”
Springsteen makes his directorial debut, alongside Thom Zimny, a longtime collaborator who has edited and directed numerous music videos and documentaries for the rock star.
“I’ve worked with Bruce for the past 20 years, and the difference between working on this film and other projects was the level of involvement he had with shaping and structuring the cut,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “The biggest thing was that he wrote a voiceover script that gave the film such a body and soul.”
Rolling Stone’s glowing review says: “The film, bathed in gorgeous shadow and light by cinematographer Joe DeSalvo, gets more personal as it moves along. You can feel the romantic ache when Springsteen and Scialfa duet on Stones. And on Moonlight Motel, the film flashes back to home movies of the couple on their honeymoon in Yosemite.
“But no one is selling sentiment here. There is a tenderness in the music that never disguises the fact that love leaves bruises. Pure joy is saved for the encore number, in which Springsteen and his crew get down to Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy, an exuberant anthem about making it despite the odds.”
Western Stars, and this finale, will hit you in all the feels; if it doesn’t, you have no heart at all.
As a companion piece, Netflix has its original special, Springsteen On Broadway, released in 2018.
The two-hour-plus performance is exactly that – Springsteen on a theatre stage, singing and reminiscing. It earned him a Special Tony award for his trouble, and ran for five shows a week from October 2017, until finally closing in December 2018, 236 shows in total. IndieWire calls it the best thing Netflix has ever done. Bold words indeed.