Western Stars

Bruce Springsteen - Western Stars - film posterWhen Bruce Springsteen released his latest album, Western Stars, in June 2019 there was a rumbling of dissatisfaction from some sections of his fan base that there didn’t appear to be any kind of extensive promotional tour for the record.

That concern was, supposedly, answered though when a movie of the same name was released on a special limited cinematic ‘event’ run as well as on the usual home viewing platforms (I happen to be going with the blu-ray).

I’ve already discussed the album in an earlier post but the film does something extra that certainly makes it worth discussing in its own right.

The whole thing builds from the twang of a banjo, a sound drenched in the kind of Americana that this side of Springsteen’s work is steeped in, as we are introduced to the venue for this intimate concert experience — the converted hay lift of a vintage barn on the The Boss’ own property.

This venue is spectacular with an almost cathedral like roof that regardless of who it belonged to or was playing there would make it worthy of being on film but it perfectly fits the theme of the album in question here.

Bruce Springsteen - Western Stars 3
Springsteen during one of the film sequences

It might appear rather prosaic for the film to just play through the songs on the album but this is developed by brief interstitial sequences that see Springsteen giving some background into the music and the overall concept of the record.

In this he doesn’t over explain things but sets the scene and, in several cases, this brings the songs to life even more.

These sequences, shot almost ‘in character’ in the Joshua Tree national park look terrific and continue to build on the classic western sound of the record and feel of the barn venue.

The bulk of the film though is a performance/concert movie.

Bruce Springsteen - Western Stars 1
Springsteen on stage with the orchestra

There is definitely a feel to this that builds on the style and delivery seen in Springsteen On Broadway but here he is backed not just by a full band (including several guitarists, drums, bass, keys, pedal/lap steel guitar and backing vocals along with the ever present Mrs Springsteen, Patti Scialfa) but also an orchestra. All of This serves to not just replicate the sounds on the album, that mid-century almost soundtrack like feel, but even more so bring them to life.

It would be quite easy for the whole exercise to slip into some kind of rather pompous self-indulgence but as the film goes on it reveals that the songs are, of course, not just about Bruce but about the American condition as a whole as well. Through his performance comes a real honesty and conviction that is hard to beat — and I say this as not the world’s most dedicated follower of The Boss.

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Bruce and Patti in archive footage shown in the film

In terms of the music Drive Fast (The Stuntman) remains a key highlight and, with the introduction, says even more than I found on the album while the likes of Sleepy Joe’s Café and Tucson Train really have an extra, even more vital, feel.

If I had one criticism of the film it would be that it doesn’t give the songs the chance to breathe as it seems to rush into the next interstitial sequence and at only 83 minutes they have room to play with in that regard.

Largely though it is a great celebration of the music and the meaning of the album that allows the full sound to be heard in a way probably far more suitable than the stadium rock shows Springsteen is known for ever could.

Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa in Western Stars
Springsteen and Scialfa on stage in the film

Topped off by a kind of encore of Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy that complements the overall theme brilliantly, Western Stars may well be made for the fans but I think there’s more to it than that and it does a great job of augmenting and even heightening the original album without overburdening it with exposition as was my initial fear.

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