“Everybody’s broken in some way,” Bruce’s gravelly voiceover fills the screen during his directorial debut Western Stars. “In this life, nobody gets away unhurt… We’re always trying to find somebody whose broken pieces fit with our broken pieces, and something whole emerges.” This incessant longing and desire for companionship lies within each of the characters that populate Springsteen’s album: the weathered cattlemen, ageing stuntmen, lonely drivers, fading movie stars, and truckers tossing back a drink after a hard day’s work. A childhood photograph of Bruce as a little boy in a cowboy costume brings his storied career full circle; it is an aesthetic ingrained in his D.N.A. Bruce has always been writing about cowboys, even if they were wearing different clothes; lonely, wandering men without a home or family of their own. He explores these ideas once again on his album and now within the new medium of cinema.
The centrepiece of the film is a gorgeous live performance of the album that takes place within the hayloft of a 140-year-old barn on Bruce’s Colts Neck property. Influenced by country and California pop from the Sixties and Seventies, Springsteen is backed by a 30-piece orchestra including strings, horns, and five singers arranged by his wife, Patti Scialfa. A lucky audience of friends and family sit in the front row at candlelit tables.
The interiors of the barn are frequently lit in a serene midnight blue hue, and the circular twinkle lights evoke the stars of the sweeping western sky that his lonesome characters look towards. This beautiful interior adds to the singularity of the only full performance of the album. Whereas Springsteen on Broadway was frequently shot in tight close-ups, co-director Thom Zimny makes substantial use of the unique rustic space by gliding his camera in the air, making the tiny barn feel as expansive as the western landscapes Bruce wanders and the evoking sound of the album itself. He often matches the soaring camera movements to the lush music. The slow zooms, tracking shots, and low angles Zimny peppers throughout the live performance propels its excitement and keeps the audience thoroughly engaged.
Bruce explains via voiceover that the opening song “Hitch Hikin” crystallises the push and pull between transience and installation of deep roots; this is the heart of both American life and his own, as well as the defining theme of Western Stars. The concert portion of the film affirms Bruce’s power as a live performer as he shapes the contours of the song in an different way than the studio version by spotlighting new emotions or feelings. He brings an affecting pathos to the songs as only Bruce Springsteen can.
The strings on songs such as “Tuscon Train,” “The Wayfarer,” and “Chasin’ Wild Horses” are rich, filling the barn setting with their resounding beauty. One of the live performance’s stunning highlights is the pop symphony “There Goes My Miracle,” particuarly Bruce’s resonant Roy Orbison-esque vibrato. “Somewhere North of Nashville” is quiet and low key on the album, but Springsteen brings out the song’s powerful pain in his haunting presentation. The gloomy “Stones” becomes a duet with Patti Scialfa, and their shared history colours the performance with a fiery chemistry and cutting intensity. One of the final songs “Hello Sunshine” is devastating, as Bruce’s sombre, searching eyes emit the character’s desperate need to stave off depression and hold on to hope for just a little longer.
In between the songs are mini-movies, or vignettes, where Springsteen philosophises about topics relevant to the album, his inspirations, or the meaning behind the lyrics. Some of the monologues tread familiar territory from either his memoir or the Broadway show, but they illuminate the music and reaffirm the themes that have been preoccupying him for decades. At first these sermons appear via voice over, but then Bruce speaks to the camera. Bruce’s soliloquies are often achingly vulnerable and self-flagellating, intimately revealing to the audience his troubles. For young Bruce, pain felt like home and he continually sought that feeling. “You don’t know how to hold on to love but you know how to hold on to hurt,” he recalls. If he loved someone, he would do his best to hurt them so that he could drive them away. Bruce imparts his wisdom on letting go the fears, old habits, and insecurities that “get the best of the best of us.” Rejecting his wandering nature for the solace of home life (the underlying tension of the Western Stars album) is what grounded him and freed him from his past toxic behaviours. He found solace in the virtues of faith, trust, and the fearlessness that love requires.
Bruce is filmed in various locales such as the desert walking with horses, wandering through a stable, or sitting in an old house, usually in slow-motion. Often, he plays the part of his album characters and childhood heroes Gary Cooper and John Wayne by wearing a cowboy hat. At one point, Bruce sits with his arm over the seat of the car and faces the camera, a laid-back, quintessentially Bruce Springsteen image that clarifies his workaday relatability. A lovely aspect of Western Stars is the vintage footage of ordinary American life inserted within these vignettes, nostalgic images of 1950s suburbia and families playing, getting married, celebrating birthdays, and more.
Love is the cornerstone of the film. Western Stars has often been described as a love letter to Patti, and it is the moments that celebrate their devotion to one another that shine the most. Before a stirring duet of “Moonlight Motel,” we are treated to sweetly silly home video footage from their honeymoon set to an exquisite and emotive score by Springsteen. His Aaron Copland-esque instrumental compositions throughout Western Stars are stunning, evoking the western films of his youth in its exuberant sound. The private footage the score is set to is incredibly moving—a chance to witness Bruce as his authentic self sharing an intimate moment with the woman he deeply loves. This poignant sequence is the highlight of the film.
Western Stars is a remarkably distinctive film experience in that it is not simply a concert movie or documentary; it defies the parameters of cinema to create a transfixing work of exceptional elegance. Western Stars connects Springsteen’s meditative ruminations that have been shaped over the decades as a 70-year-old man with sumptuous music that deftly captures human strife. At the end of the film, Bruce looks towards us, the audience, and advises his pilgrims to travel safe. He has always been our guide, driving us towards sunshine and love.
by Caroline Madden
Caroline hails from the home state of her hero, Bruce Springsteen. Her favourite films include Dog Day Afternoon, Raging Bull, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Lord of the Rings. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies from SCAD and also appears in Fandor, Reverse Shot, Crooked Marquee, and IndieWire. You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss. Order her book Springsteen as Soundtrack here.