A-Ron’s New Movie Reviews: Western Stars (2019)

In 2019 Bruce Springsteen released “Western Stars”, an album that is his best both lyrically and musically in the past few years. Springsteen is completely in tune with being a storyteller through his songwriting and “Western Stars” is no exception. Instead of going on tour for the album, Springsteen opted to do a visual companion to the album, with a concert documentary. You will be in nirvana and blown away by the films deeply intimate experience; that is breathtaking in it’s power. Directed by Springsteen himself, the album is inspired by the great Glenn Campbell with it’s lush and grand string-driven California western pop. The album, is a masterful blend of cowboy lore, folk yearning, and indispensably vast American landscapes. The film is inspired by his love of filmmaker Terrence Malick in the way its meditative, poetic style is deeply entranced by open spaces and the beauty of nature. He comments on the many mistakes he’s made in his life while at one point, even claims that he hurt pretty much everyone he’s ever loved and he really tells us something about himself through the film. Springsteen’s work is focused, lyrical, and personal much like the films of his inspiration Terrence Malick. His work on “Western Stars”, both as an album and movie is Springsteen proving he is truly a prophet and poet. 

Nearly eight years ago in 2011, Bruce Springsteen started recording for his album “Western Stars”. An album that is both a departure for the American poet and Springsteen’s best album both lyrically and musically in the past few years. He sidelined the album for an E-Street Band tour, as recording sessions eventually continued over the years. The album was released in 2019 and was met with glowing reviews. But “Western Stars” wasn’t backed by a tour, it would be the first time the musician skipped the road on an album since his 1982 folk acoustic landmark, “Nebraska”.

Springsteen has always been right up there with Bob Dylan, as two American poets delivering powerful storytelling about this big old land we call America, through their musical lyrics. Springsteen is completely in tune with being a storyteller through his songwriting and his recent album “Western Stars” is no exception. 

Instead of going on tour for the album, Springsteen opted to do a visual companion to the album, with the accompanying concert documentary also named “Western Stars”. For those who were taken back by his 13 gorgeous songs on the album, will be in nirvana and blown away by this deeply intimate experience; that is breathtaking in it’s power. 

Directed by Springsteen himself, with some help from his longtime film collaborator Thom Zimny, who has edited or directed seemingly everything Springsteen’s done that’s had a visual component to it since 2005. The songs, ruminating poetically on life and the American Dream, are reborn in this breathtaking concert film, and nearly every tune has been enhanced and given room to open up and breathe.

The music is inspired by the great Glenn Campbell with it’s lush and grand string-driven California western pop. The album, is a masterful blend of cowboy lore, folk yearning, and indispensably vast American landscapes. It is a late era classic that deserves a special place in the Springsteen pantheon. 

The setting for the documentary is within a 100 year old barn located, at Springsteen’s home in New Jersey. As he says in the beginning: “It’s a sacred space, one that reflects the history it’s seen in its deep wood and high ceilings”. The setting is so intimate it feels you received your very own invitation. He is accompanied by his wife Patti Scialfa, some bass, drums, piano, guitar, background vocals, and a massive 30-piece string section, to create a part concert film and part visual experience, but worthy companion to the album. 

Each song is set up with a short video narrated by Springsteen explaining the inspiration for each song. “Western Stars” the movie, is as much about Springsteen the man, as it is about Springsteen, the performer and artist. An invigorating concert experience for an intimate, reflective live show; it’s achingly beautiful, tender, and personal, with strains of regret and hope. He contemplates the effects of aging (he is 70!), of confronting his regrets and past mistakes, of trying to embrace what’s there instead of what isn’t.

Springsteen lays out in the films introduction, by saying: “Life is often a push and pull between the concept of the individual and the need for community. We desire self-expression and individuality, but we also long for family, friends, and togetherness. How do these two things express themselves across our lives in art, love, religion, and even the many mistakes we make over the course of a lifetime?”. 

These are the deep themes featured in Springsteen’s album that are enhanced through this film, one that captures the duality of its creator and its concept in ways that few album companion pieces have before. The structure of “Western Stars” is simple and effective. As Springsteen had recently told Indiewire that his album “Nebraska” was heavily influenced by filmmaker Terrence Malick’s film “Badlands”, with Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek and one can see Malick’s influence carrying all the way to “Western Stars”, in the way its meditative, poetic style is deeply entranced by open spaces and the beauty of nature. 

We hear no one else’s voice but Springsteen’s in “Western Stars,” as he alternates voiceover passages that serve as introductions to his songs with live performances from an amazing, intimate show. Keeping with the Malick filmmaking style, Springsteen’s introductions are not your standard songwriter banter. He’s digging into a deeper place here than he has publicly before, looking at how the characters he’s created for these songs represent both something greater about the human condition and his own past. 

When he sings it feels both like a confessional and a character. Like a lot of great writers of any medium, Springsteen finds a way to reveal something about himself and us through the characters he portrays musically. “Western Stars is full of songs in which he plays a role of sorts, such as an aging genre star on the title track or a stuntman on “Drive Fast” but what makes the album a masterpiece is how much these characters reveal about other people, especially their creator. 

And Springsteen’s film is special in how much he is willing to reveal about this aspect of the album, commenting on the many mistakes he’s made in his life while at one point, even claims that he hurt pretty much everyone he’s ever loved and how even when he takes on these characters he has written, he’s actually really telling us something about himself.

While it’s beautiful to hear and a surround sound is required so you can hear the strings and backup singers bouncing off the high wood ceilings. “Western Stars” is at it’s truly the best when it was at it’s most intimate, keeping us in tight focus on Springsteen’s face, as he reveals a depth to his voice that feels more resonant than ever before. It’s something that comes with age, and while Bruce looks nowhere near his age of 70, there’s an experience that comes through in his tone that’s really captivating and mesmerizing. He’s looking back at a long life, well-lived, and revealing so much about himself through these songs. 

Springsteen’s work is focused, lyrical, and personal much like the films of his inspiration Terrence Malick. His work on “Western Stars”, both as an album and movie is Springsteen proving he is truly a prophet and poet. 

GRADE: ★★★★★ (5/5)

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros lives on the beautiful island of Maui. He is a member of The Hawaii Film Critics Society, movie critic for Maui Watch, a commentator and cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, learning about movies from his Grandfather and being self taught.

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