Even casual listeners of Bruce Springsteen’s songs are well-aware of The Boss’ many obsessions — America, cars, love, small towns, tough times, personal growth, denim — and his first turn behind the camera speaks to his consistent “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” ethos that has already guided so much of his work. Part concert doc, part personal rumination on all the things that make Bruce, well, Bruce, “Western Stars” serves as both an intimate exploration of Springsteen’s latest album of the same name and a deeper dive into his most pervasive compulsions. Springsteen’s natural charisma shines through at every turn, and while Bruce neophytes might not totally buy his particular brand of profundity, old admirers will appreciate his usual tricks.
Both the album (released earlier this summer) and film were, as Springsteen explains during an opening voiceover, conceived of as a response to the inherent dichotomy of American life: the desire for individual freedoms and the need for a community. It’s Springsteen, through and through. Still, there are some evolutions to enjoy here, as Springsteen steps behind the camera for the first time ever, serving as director alongside his longtime collaborator Thom Zimny, who previously directed a number of Springsteen videos and the documentary “The Ties That Bind.” It’s a fitting directorial debut, and one that combines Springsteen’s stagecraft (and Zimny’s, the Emmy winner also directed “Springsteen on Broadway,” another Bruce joint that goes beyond standard concert doc conventions) with more cinematic diversions.
While Springsteen and his band — including wife and constant creative partner Patti Scialfa, herself a big draw — play each song on stage in album order, the stories behind their creation are delivered solely by Springsteen via a series of arty vignettes. The singer and songwriter is again mining his typical interests for the material (lots of cars, more love stories, plenty of tough times), a pop-inflected country album made epic by the inclusion of a thirty-piece orchestra, but the presentation and design of “Western Stars” is indeed something fresh.
Cutting between the “live” performance (set in the Springsteens’ own 100-year-old barn, big enough for the band, the orchestra, the crew, and a hand-picked audience), the interstitial explanations find Springsteen playing at both himself and attempting to lightly embody some of the many characters that populate the record. While some scenes find Springsteen trawling around the desert reminiscing about his own life, including the occasional use of archival footage and old pictures to literally illustrate his points, others find him more directly engaging with the more fictionalized elements of the record. Springsteen has always been open about his emotions, less reticent to share specific experiences — though, in recent years, he’s shared much more, including on Broadway and in his autobiography “Born to Run” — and “Western Stars” finds him back in a place where feelings reign over facts.
Until, that is, Springsteen starts to slip inside the stories of other people. He makes no bones about his affection for creating characters to craft songs both about and around, and “Western Stars” includes a variety of such colorful personas. From the fading Western star (in the eponymous song, Springsteen jokes about his character being shot by John Wayne while on the job) to a banged-up stuntman and even a kid who runs away from a heartbreak by taking a job breaking horses, “Western Stars” is filled with Springsteen stand-ins who allow him to further explore his usual themes. Cinematographer Joe DeSalvo, another Springsteen regular, shoots The Boss with ease and intimacy, bringing us in close both on the stage and off.
While The Boss’ introductory bits are occasionally too on-the-nose, addressing obvious themes and even including the same lines as the song themselves (the transition into “Western Stars” is particularly hammy), they provide a new avenue of expression and explanation. Springsteen’s concerts are often punctuated with fun anecdotes and classic storytelling techniques, but “Western Stars” sees him and Zimny further toying with a narrative style that makes old chestnuts feel fresh. They did something similar with “Springsteen on Broadway,” which similarly hinged on the star telling stories before segueing into songs, though “Western Stars” offers a more broadly appealing take on that concept.
Filmed over the course of a few days, “Western Stars” understandably uses the best takes to fit into one cohesive edit, but a short glimpse of so-called bloopers during the end credits hints at a shaggier cut, a less polished version of an airtight (and intermittently airless) final product. Springsteen and crew are at their best when allowed to live it up a little, and the more off-the-cuff moments ring true, from a glimpse of an understandably beaming cello player to Springsteen and Scialfa interacting on the seemingly quite personal “Stones.” With every album, Springsteen aims to tell a story, and while the tales that populate “Western Stars” are familiar, the frame that binds them together is new and shines bright.
“Western Stars” premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. Warner Bros. will release the film in October.