Bruce Springsteen continues his very public deep dive into his psyche and sense of self with the documentary Western Stars, which opens in theaters on October 25. The movie is part of an unofficial trilogy that began with the 2016 memoir Born to Run and was followed by Springsteen on Broadway. Bruce’s (mostly) one-man show ran at the Walter Kerr Theatre for more than a year, concluding in mid-December 2018, and it earned him a special Tony; Western Stars premiered in early October at the Toronto International Film Festival. In June, Springsteen released his nineteenth studio album, Western Stars, a gorgeous collection of swirling California pop songs, paying tribute to the likes of Jimmy Webb, Burt Bacharach, and Glen Campbell, about characters from the West facing loneliness as they grow older. Bruce opted not to tour behind the album and instead decided to make a film highlighting the music while adding thoughtful, poignant narration, ruminating on character, faith, change, moving forward, and growing wiser with age.
Bruce headed into his hundred-year-old barn on his Colts Neck farm in New Jersey and performed the album live for a small, intimate group of friends and relatives, who sit at small tables as if at a nightclub, politely clapping after some songs. Bruce is joined by his wife, Patti Scialfa, on acoustic guitar and vocals; backup singers including E Street Band violinist Soozie Tyrell; a horn section with regular Bruce sideman Curt Ramm; E Streeter Charlie Giordano on piano and accordion; and a thirty-piece string orchestra. The songs are not mere re-creations from the album but are given more life and breadth here, with dazzling, lush versions of “Hitch Hikin’,” “The Wayfarer,” “Tucson Train,” “Chasin’ Wild Horses,” “Hello Sunshine,” and others; he turns “Stones” and “Moonlight Motel” into powerful duets with Scialfa, who does not sing on the record. (He has called the film a “love letter” to Scialfa.) He also adds a bonus encore that is tremendous fun.
In between each song, Bruce talks either on camera or in voice-over about the upcoming tune and/or his state of mind as cinematographer Joe DeSalvo films him around the farm and follows him as he visits with his horses and goes to Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. Codirected by Springsteen and his longtime collaborator and videographer, Thom Zimny, the film features an inordinate amount of shots of Bruce driving around in cars, donning cowboy hats, examining himself in mirrors, looking out in the distance contemplatively, driving around some more, and putting on more cowboy hats amid close-up after close-up of his expressive face. “The older you get, the heavier that baggage becomes that you haven’t sorted through, so you run. I’ve done a lot of that kind of running,” he admits, waxing philosophic in his gravelly, distinctive voice. “Change — how do you change yourself?” he asks. “It’s easy to lose yourself or never find yourself.” he explains. Zimny intercuts vintage home movies from the Springsteen family archive, including Bruce as a child and, later, in a sweetly romantic moment with Patti at a picnic on their honeymoon, all with new instrumental music playing underneath.
Just as with his autobiography and Broadway show, Springsteen brings up personal flaws and his intense difficulty finding true and complete happiness, powerful stuff coming from an ultra-successful artist in a happy marriage with three apparently good kids. “We all have our broken pieces. . . . In this life, nobody gets away unhurt,” he opines. His vision of the mythological American male in the West is not John Wayne’s, and it’s not Sam Shepard’s or the Beach Boys’ either; in fact, in the title track, the narrator is a minor actor whose claim to fame is that he was shot by the macho Wayne at the end of a movie (“That one scene bought me a thousand drinks / Set me up and I’ll tell it for you, friend”). In the bright-sounding “Hello Sunshine,” Springsteen is not so much welcoming the sun but practically begging it to not go away. “Had enough of heartbreak and pain / Had a little sweet spot for the rain / For the rain and skies of gray / Hello sunshine, won’t you stay,” he sings, with more than a touch of desperation. As he noted on his 1988 Tunnel of Love Express tour, “It’s a dark ride,” but as always with Bruce, it’s another one worth taking.