Western Stars finds the Boss in the middle of the road

Movie Review: Western Stars

Bruce Springsteen decided not to tour for his latest album that pays homage to the American frontier, so he made a live performance documentary featuring archival footage, personal vignettes, and an entire string section that bows a new appreciation for easy listening.

Western Stars

3/5

Starring: Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa

Directed by: Bruce Springsteen and Thom Zimny

Running time: 1 hr 23 mins

Rating: PG

Opening October 24 in select cities.

By Katherine Monk

The Boss doesn’t want to rock anymore. But he certainly wants to roll. Inspired by the promise of personal freedom embodied in the automobile and its representation of the American Dream, Bruce Springsteen revs his creative engine and pays homage to the road movie in his debut documentary, Western Stars.

Easily the most personal view of the New Jersey son that we’ve seen yet, Springsteen stands before — and behind — the camera as narrator and performer, letting us ride shotgun on a dreamy spin through his past.

He shows us archival footage of his early years, when there was darkness on the edge of town, and — as we learn — inside his heart. “If I loved you… I would hurt you,” he confesses. He was born to run, until he found the courage to put it in “Park” with bandmate and backup vocalist, Patti Scialfa.

Easily the most personal view of the New Jersey son that we’ve seen yet, Springsteen stands before — and behind — the camera as narrator and performer, letting us ride shotgun on a dreamy spin through his past.

Though we don’t get deep or particularly intimate sessions with the couple, we get hints about the dynamic as the voyage progresses. When Patti leans into the microphone to harmonize on the new song “Stones,” and the chorus “Those were only the lies you told me,” you can sense a little tension. The feeling is affirmed a few scenes later when people familiar with the couple articulate the same gurgle of suggested betrayal.

They remain a romantic mystery for the most part, but a compelling one thanks to the sparse use of personal photos and Patti’s perpetual Sphinx-like presence on stage. She stands to his left, watching him throughout, almost as if she, too, were still looking for the secret door into the man’s soul.

Turns out all that brown-eyed brooding energy, framed by five o’clock shadow and loose black curls on the covers of early albums, was more than sexy image-making. It was real, and it was self-destructive, forcing Springsteen to acknowledge his own fear of commitment — and his own paralysis on the score of love.

Turns out all that brown-eyed brooding energy, framed by five o’clock shadow and loose black curls on the covers of early albums, was more than sexy image-making. It was real, and it was self-destructive….

He gives us short bursts of poetic insights, spoken over music video style montages of Bruce driving his classic American cars, or riding his horses on a ranch somewhere in the Southwest. He explains cowboys are like cars to him, symbolic of the 1950s optimism that fuelled his youth. He sees himself in the chiselled heroes and wide open spaces of Western folklore, which is what prompted him to write Western Stars.

A collection of tunes that feel like they fell out of Glen Campbell’s guitar case circa 1978, the music is the big star. He performs every song on the album live off the floor, with a full symphony of strings, in the hay loft of his 100-year-old barn. It’s a warm, intimate setting, and he fills it with friends — essentially inviting the viewer to join them in the front row.

A collection of tunes that feel like they fell out of Glen Campbell’s guitar case circa 1978, the music is the big star.

The high-definition format and moving cameras go a long way toward convincing us we’re right there, too. We can look right into his eyes and feel the thump of his booted foot on the beat. We can stare at his iconic Boss pose — sturdy, bent-kneed, poised like a hood ornament into the wind.

For Springsteen fans, Western Stars is a brief confession. It’s the continuation of a reflective process that started with his 2016 autobiography, Born to Run, and continued with his stage play, Springsteen on Broadway. He’s trying to reconcile his public and private selves, understand what gives him purpose, and evolve as a songwriter.

He’s clearly done it, but this mature version of the man has abandoned the driving beats and power chords that made him famous. Rock ’n’ roll is getting smaller in the rearview mirror as he steers toward the middle of the road with orchestral arrangements and molasses ballads.

You feel the ghosts of everyone from Gram Parsons and Emmylou, to John Denver and Jimmy Webb in the chord changes and slide guitar, but it’s really Glen Campbell who hovers over the whole experience — not just in the instrumentation choices and overall song construction, but in the mood — and even the persona.

Rock ’n’ roll is getting smaller in the rearview mirror as he steers toward the middle of the road with orchestral arrangements and molasses ballads.

One song sounded so Campbell-esque, I had to wonder if it was conscious homage or subconscious borrowing. Then he plays Rhinestone Cowboy in the final strums of the film, and it all comes together — the voice, the music, the message.

The Boss isn’t so interested in the star-spangled rodeo any more. He’s lost his taste for touring — which is why he made this movie, in lieu of live performance — and he’s trying to reconcile celebrity with daily life. Western Stars reveals a few layers of the gritty struggle through grainy, sun-drenched images and close-ups of Springsteen’s face, but like the music itself, it feels a little too smooth, a little too contrived and just a teensy bit cheesy to embrace on a deeply personal level.

THE EX-PRESS, October 25, 2019

To read more movie reviews by Katherine, check out the Ex-Press archive or sample career work at Rotten Tomatoes.

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Review: Western Stars

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Bruce Springsteen decided not to tour for his latest album that pays homage to the American frontier, so he made a live performance documentary featuring archival footage, personal vignettes, and an entire string section that replaces his rock edge with easy listening. The film reveals a few layers of the musician's gritty struggle through grainy, sun-drenched images and close-ups of Springsteen’s face, but like the music itself, it feels a little too smooth, a little too contrived and just a teensy bit cheesy to embrace on a deeply personal level. -- Katherine Monk

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