Bruce Springsteen and Thom Zimny’s “Western Stars” is more than a concert film. Both structurally and musically, this unique cinema experience is an homage to the life and philosophies of the American Western. The film and album are based on the constant struggle for individualism while maintaining a connection to family and friends, the eternal struggle of the cowboy.
Performing all thirteen songs from his latest album, also, as it were, entitled “Western Stars,” Springsteen immerses us in introspective tales of life and love and the hardships of finding oneself in an overcrowded world and an uncertain life.
Forever the troubadour, Springsteen has no plans to tour for this album, a bold move in this day and age of overly-promoted music. The Boss wanted this film to be a visual and aural record that would tell the story of how he came to his personal philosophies at this point in his life and career.
With a crowd of around thirty people and filmed in a rustic hundred year-old barn on Springsteen’s property in Colts Neck, New Jersey, the audience is treated to an intimate and communal performance with music made ever the more powerful by the thirty-piece orchestra that joins The Boss on stage. If Springsteen’s words weren’t powerful enough, the way he uses the strings and horns assists in the potency of his songs and elevates some of the musical numbers to moments of pure grace.
Between the performances are vignettes from cinematographer Joe DeSalvo (shot at California’s Joshua Tree National Park) where Springsteen speaks of the life experiences and lessons that provided the basis for the album and the inspirations for its creation.
The poetry of the lyrics (and the film) itself recalls the meditative works of Terrence Malick while some songs point to the struggles of characters from the films of Sam Peckinpah and the plays of Sam Shepard.
In these songs lies the story of the emotionally and physically heartbroken rodeo cowboy who mends his soul by breaking horses. We can feel the longing and sadness of the ex-Cowboy Movie star who was “once shot by John Wayne” forced to do cheap commercials for money in a harrowing tale. There is the hardened and used-up stuntman who hit a rough patch. And in the most affecting song of all (“Stones”), Springsteen’s wife and band mate Patti Scialfa joins him to sing about how lies can crumble everything dear to us and the Herculean struggle to earn back trust after it has been lost. Their performance becomes even more potent as the film inserts footage from their honeymoon almost thirty-five years ago.
Springsteen speaks about how he had to learn to love pure and how he fought the duality of wanting his freedom with the need of a woman and a stable family. Inside him has always been a deeper yearning and as he reaches seventy, he speaks of coming to terms with the good in his life and the necessity to be a good father and husband and friend.
Bruce Springsteen has taken a journey of self-discovery that has lasted over fifty years and through his music, his fans have been fortunate to have been beside him through every moment.
That he now embraces that soulful aura about him and has come to accept the purity of the love that is his family and friends, he marks that passage of time with this latest album and film.
“Western Stars” is a fantastic experience. An intimate evening with a master songwriter who (through his characters) sings songs of his meditation on the demons of the past and riding smoothly into his age. As the decades go on, this is a tale we all oh-so-well know and live.