Western Stars (2019)

Bruce Springsteen in a scene from the film 'Western Stars' based on his 19th album. 

Review

WESTERN STARS (2019)

Documentary. Directed by Thom Zimny and Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen takes his first turn behind the camera partnering with frequent collaborator Thom Zimny for “Western Stars” a poetic film based on the album of the same name The Boss released in May. A 30-piece orchestra accompanies Springsteen as he performs all 13 songs from the album intercut with conceptual vignettes made up of newly shot scenic footage, home movies, and archival photos as the singer-songwriter explains the essence of each one of the tracks. Filmed inside a beautifully restored 100-year old barn on Springsteen’s Colts Neck, New Jersey property, the setting evokes an intimate jazz club despite the cathedral ceilings. Even if you’re not a diehard fan, it’s hard to resist the country-tinged songs and ballads behind the 83-minute performance film. Pure magic.

At the age of 70, the rock icon has never been more transparent. After releasing his autobiography (“Born to Run”) three years ago and making the transition to the stage for “Springsteen on Broadway,” we now have a better sense of what makes this man tick. This film seems the next logical step for The Boss as it shadows his successful Broadway run which featured a similar format.

Springsteen delves into classic themes of the heartland, old cars, family, wild horses, and the open road. In many ways “Western Stars” feels like a sequel to 1982’s “Nebraska.” Both solo albums are personal with songs that resemble short stories while introducing us to interesting characters like the faded Western movie star of his latest album’s title track whose claim to fame is being shot onscreen by John Wayne and the self-explanatory “Drive Fast (The Stuntman)” which prompts Springsteen to amusingly explain “This is my 19th album and I’m still writing about cars.”

Another frequent Springsteen collaborator, Joe DeSalvo handles the cinematography which is gorgeous at times like the film’s opening shot of wild horses running in slow motion as the sun sets behind the mountains in the distance. We see Springsteen’s hand clutch the steering wheel of a vintage car, a shot that’s replicated at the end as his hand is joined by the hand of guitarist wife Patti Scialfa who is prominently featured in the film as the two perform side by side for the intimate concert.

“Western Stars” is a concept film, not a behind-the-scenes documentary or making-of film. It transcends the average concert documentary by giving the audience an immersive experience. Springsteen describes it best when he says, “Western Stars is a 13-song meditation on the struggle between individual freedom and communal life.” He may have been “Born to Run” but the transient side of The Boss is balanced by his need for deep roots and family like most of us.

While the gracefully shot vignettes filled with Springsteen’s ruminations are a pleasure to watch it’s the film’s performances that drive the concert film. Just a few songs in and I was already learning the lyrics and singing along. The orchestra accompanying Springsteen and the band gives these tracks a lush sound as the talented musicians attempt to keep pace with Springsteen as he tears through each of the songs from his latest album.

To be honest, the film was my introduction to the album and I’m sure I won’t be the only one to jump online and purchase a copy after viewing the film. At 70, the rock icon continues to deliver passionate songs in his signature style. “Western Stars” is a real treat that concludes with a fantastic rendition of Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy.”

(4 stars)

Opening October 25 in select theaters. There is a special Fathom Event early screening on October 19 in select theaters. In Houston catch the screening at Regal Edwards Greenway Grand Palace, Regal Houston Marq’E, Cinemark Memorial City, and Cinemark 18 and XD. In Austin catch the film at Regal Arbor @ Great Hills, Cinemark Hill Country Galleria, and Cinemark 20 and XD.

Joe Friar is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society.  He co-founded the Victoria Film Society and reviews films for Hit Radio 104.7 and the Victoria Advocate.

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Joe Friar is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. He co-founded the Victoria Film Society and reviews films for Hit Radio 104.7 and the Victoria Advocate."

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