To hammer home his most recent album, Western Stars, Bruce Springsteen has co-directed—with Thom Zimny—his own concert film of the same name. It’s a live performance of the album in its entirety, performed on the second story of Springsteen’s 19th-century barn, with a stable of very lucky horses just beneath the stage.
That’s as good a place as any for Springsteen to give his new album a little elbow room to speak its mind. The songs fit snugly in the Springsteen canon, as they’re populated with the gristle of American life. At first glance, the most striking difference is that his misfits are a little bit older now, with less time in front of them to make things right. Between performances, there are these interludes where Springsteen prefaces each song like a DJ while you’re assaulted by robustly cinematic footage—horses running in slow motion, sun flares, and plenty of silhouettes. Springsteen, the writer, may not be as gifted as the previous links in that American road poet chain, but the lineage is deeply felt through his ruminations on rebels, drifters, and knowing when to settle down.
“…a live performance of the album in its entirety, performed on the second story of Springsteen’s 19th-century barn…”
At the beginning of the movie, Springsteen says that the American character is torn between the need to be free and the need to be communal—the open road and the fireplace, in other words. There’s a lot of truth in that, though—as Springsteen hints at himself—it seems that the need for freedom has quieted. The car, he says, is no longer the symbol of independence that it used to be, must less the road. People are looking down rather than into the distance. Western Stars is very much a tip of the hat to an attitude and way of carrying yourself that could be considered archaic at the moment but is as luring as ever.
When it comes to the performances themselves, they’re as good as it gets. The music is given second, third, and fourth lives as it bounces off the aged insides of the barn. Each performance is filmed in a modest, but hypnotizing way, confident enough in the performance itself to forgo any frills. And, thank Christ, there’s not a single reaction shot of the crowd. Nobody wants to see a stocky guy in a polo meaningfully bobbing his head.
Western Stars is more than a concert film that gets slid into a special edition release of an album. It tells its own little story about Springsteen and the characters that stumble around his head, though they come across less like creations and more like fractured pieces of a single personality. Whereas Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story captured Dylan’s penchant for eluding the audience—leaving behind false trails that lead to dead ends—Western Stars gives the always plainspoken Springsteen a new venue to put it all out there. And most of it is good stuff.
"…The songs fit snugly in the Springsteen canon, as they’re populated with the gristle of American life."