On Springsteen's "Western Stars," the film

"You walk on through the dark, because that's where the next morning is."

On Springsteen's "Western Stars," the film

Bruce Springsteen has spent the better part of the last decade intently focused on his legacy, on what he will be remembered for, what he will leave behind. The River tour with its record-breaking shows at the end, the autobiography and the author events, Springsteen On Broadway and now, the cinematic presentation of Western Stars — which also happens to be Springsteen’s directorial debut.

This isn’t a vanity project. It is, like the album, vast and expansive. The images are sharp and beautiful, and the lighting captures that special aura you only see in the desert, which you will know if you have spent any time there and you will find lovely even if you haven’t. The performance is as lush as the record, with just enough space and room so the songs can breathe, and as Bruce astutely notes later in the film, the music takes on a life of its own.

Bruce runs through the album in order, with narration between each song, which begins by him setting out his thesis, that the record was about the struggle between individual freedom and communal life. (Disclaimer that these are paraphrases; it’s hard to take notes during a movie.) Bruce and Patti down shots of what looks like tequila; they clink glasses, and the party begins. There’s a concertmaster, but Bruce is still leading the band with the movements and gestures we’re all familiar with, even when it’s a 30-piece orchestra.

The commentary is filmed outside of the context of the performance and those vignettes — which contain original and archival footage, some of which comes from the vast Springsteen archives — connect with each other visually and transform into an intentional subtext. Given that Bruce was not interested in talking about the record and decided to not tour the record, this is as much as we’re likely ever going to hear about this group of songs. He is, as ever, deliberate in his storytelling; you can feel the careful emphasis behind the narration, wanting to make sure his meaning is clear.

I chose the above screengrab for this piece because it is the thing I would be the most envious to be in the same room as, much less get to look through. And it’s also because throughout much of the film, Bruce speaks about his songs from the perspective of the songwriter, talking about characters and metaphors and devices, at one point referencing “my men in this song.” In a familiar fashion, he mentions somewhat self-deprecatingly that he is now writing about cars for his 19th album, and declares that cars are no longer a metaphor for freedom, but for movement.

If you liked Western Stars, you will love every minute of this film; it was an ecstatic, overwhelming experience for me, getting to hear the vocals sung live, watching Bruce reach for and hit those overwhelming notes: the record, after all, is a shameless assemblage of the best qualities of the American pop songbook — to which Bruce pays tribute in the film’s encore. (That’s a subtle spoiler.) Getting to hear “There Goes My Miracle” was as heart-stopping as you imagined it would be; the most successful ones were the songs that stretched some kind of muscle for Springsteen. There is an ease in his delivery that is like watching old footage of soul singers. He is paying homage, and he is having fun with it.

There are some familiar faces among the backing musicians and some unfamiliar ones as well, but it’s a crackerjack group of performers. It is decidedly not the E Street Band, but it is both enjoyable and fascinating to see Springsteen in a new context, and how he interacts with a different group of collaborators. The fact that, at the age of almost-70, he is still interested in alternate ways of making art is the most enormous gift.

I am so sorry he did not want to tour this record, because being in the room with these songs and this sound would have been overwhelming. But, at least we have this film to give us some idea of what it would be like. Just please, keep it coming: more explorations of different directions; more writing; more music.

Happy early 70th birthday, Boss.

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