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Where many recording artists of a certain age and stage might be considering a Vegas residency or a duets album, Bruce Springsteen continues to test himself creatively and artistically. Having already made fresh forays into print (his 2016 autobiography Born to Run) and stage (Springsteen on Broadway), he closes out the decade making his behind-the-camera feature-length debut with frequent collaborator Thom Zimny (The Promise: The Making of Darkness at the Edge of Town), co-directing Western Stars, a companion piece to his studio album of the same name.
Proving to be far more than a standard-issue bonus concert DVD or making-of documentary, the film, which had its world premiere at TIFF, is a gorgeous tone poem that both deepens and personalizes the audio recording, creating a satisfying emotional arc that isn’t as apparent in the collection of 13 fully-orchestrated country-tinged songs released in June.
RELEASE DATE Oct 25, 2019
Performed live, with a 30-piece orchestra and a small private audience tucked into his 100-year-old barn on his Colts Neck, New Jersey, property, the songs are introduced via Springsteen’s ruminations on solitude and community — much the same as in his Broadway show, but here they’re framed between sun-burnished mini-montages filmed in the Joshua Tree area. Aside from more richly providing context, the visual aspect, supplemented by home movie footage curated by Zimny, allows Springsteen to place himself squarely in the middle of the parade of lost souls and dream chasers that populate those songs.
The result, at once intimate and sweeping, should please both Springsteen completists and more recent fans when Western Stars rides into theaters October 25 — ideally those with sound systems worthy of the lush orchestral arrangements.
Certainly it isn’t the first time the Jersey native has touched upon the American West, what with “Thunder Road” and its opening line, “The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves,” handily conjuring up images of classic John Ford. But this collection of songs with a unifying ambience, specifically late ‘70s Southern California, easily lends itself to the tapestry of iconic imagery — wild horses running free, a pickup truck rambling down a dusty road, golden sunsets — while the writer, either in voiceover or addressing the camera, weighs in on the constant push and pull presented by road and homestead. “This is my 19th album and I’m still writing about cars,” concedes Springsteen. “The people in them, anyway.”
Meanwhile, back inside the barn, Springsteen, performing the songs live for the first time, delivers them with a seasoned ease and conviction, both alone and standing boot to boot with his longtime bandmate and wife of 27 years, Patti Scialfa. Her presence onstage lends several of them, especially “Stones” and the Jimmy Webb-inflected “Sundown,” an added layer of personal intimacy.
Further boosting that element are the cameras, permitted to move in very tightly on their subjects, as well as the spare but comfortable staging — an old jukebox here, a string of Christmas lights there — to complete the evocative, worn-in mood.
At the end of the day, this still being a Springsteen concert performance after all, The Boss obligingly tosses in an encore in the form of a rousing version of Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” that somehow doesn’t manage to feel out of place from the rest of the lineup.
“Change — how do you change yourself?” asks Springsteen during one of his introspective asides. With Western Stars, as with Springsteen on Broadway before it, the answer would seem to be to take the familiar and nudge it into those previously uncharted, wide open spaces.
Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Production companies: New Line Cinema, Western Stars Films
With: Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa
Directors: Thom Zimny, Bruce Springsteen
Producers: Thom Zimny, Jon Landau, George Travis, Barbara Carr
Executive producer: Bruce Springsteen
Cinematographer: Joe Desalvo
Production designers: Kenneth MacLeod, Kris Moran
Editor: Thom Zimny
Music: Bruce Springsteen
Rated PG, 83 minutes
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