Listen to the opening track of Bruce Springsteen’s Western Stars, the album he put out this past May, and you’ll hear someone bragging about “hitch-hikin’ all day long.” He accepts a ride from a man and his pregnant wife; then he grabs a lift from someone else, just a guy free to heed the call of the open road. Two cuts later, on a song called “Tucson Train,” we get a different tale — maybe he’s a new protagonist; maybe he’s the same romantic drifter of “Hitch Hikin'” and a hundred other Springsteen tracks — who had lost his way and lost and his true love. But now he’s settled down, he’s ready to be part of society, he’s watching that 5:15 train bringing his baby to him to show up. (It takes a lot to laugh, etc.)
There are 11 more tunes, some of which are country-tinged ballads and others that are Seventies SoCal symphony pop. But you could argue that the whole story is there in those two tracks. The dude who was born to run. The man who’s finally ready to earn and embrace the human touch.
Should you still be unsure at what he’s getting at, Springsteen spells it out as plain as can be in the beginning of Western Stars, the concert film-cum-visual album he and longtime collaborator/codirector Thom Zimny premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on Thursday night. (It hits theaters October 25th.) His collection of songs about road warriors and B-movie actors, beat-up stuntmen and places where truckers and bikers drink together, is a look at “the two sides of the American character…individual freedom and communal life.” He says this over panoramic shots that turn the record’s cover of a running mustang into a literal motion picture, interspersed with clips of home movies. A close-up details a hand on a pickup’s steering wheel, ready to skeedaddle. The shot is repeated 90 or so mins later, with another hand now resting tenderly on top of the original one. This is the journey Springsteen wants you take here. It’s the same one, he notes, that he’s been taking over the last 35 years.
After releasing this solo project, the songwriter knew he wasn’t going to support the record with a tour. Still, he wanted to do something to, in his words, “get this music live to an audience.” Springsteen came up with the idea of playing the whole thing start to finish, then capture the event on film for posterity. He and Zimny, the filmmaker behind dozens of Bruce-related music videos and making-of-album docs, started to scout locations; they eventually settled on the top floor of the barn on Springsteen’s property. (“We dressed the space up quite a bit,” he admitted in a Q&A after an afternoon press screening.) The notion was to put on an intimate show “for a few friends, and to entertain the horses.” Just a small crowd, a honkytonk-style bar, a scrappy band buffered by an orchestral section, and a singer with a guitar.
And as a performance film, Western Stars is a pitch-perfect example of why this music needed to be played and heard live. On record, you can feel Springsteen working his way through some uncharacteristic styles: Jimmy Webb-style C&W lite, Brian Wilson’s baroque pop, Everly Brothers-like crooning, musical arrangements that wouldn’t be out of place on an old Harry Nilsson joint (listen to that gossamer shuffle that opens up “Hello Sunshine” and tell me you don’t expect the first line to be “Everybody’s talkin’ at me…”). Seeing him take on those songs on a stage, however, and you get the sense he owns all of it now — he’s turned all of these influences into a seamless Springsteen sound. A number of the cuts open up like an oxygenated bottle of wine, whether it’s because there’s a gaggle of string players or a single partner in crime — the interplay between him and wife/guitarist Patti Scialfa on “Stones” deepens the cut substantially — bringing something else out of him.
But what you see in the live versions is the sum of these parts as one cohesive whole. He’s a singer in sync with the musical community surrounding him, a concept as thematically on point with the album as possible. (Thankfully, the soundtrack to the film will also be released, which means you’ll get Springsteen & Co.’s gorgeous cover of Glenn Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” — an impromptu coda that, Zimny says, he didn’t know Bruce was going to do. The fact that a cameraman was nearby and quickly caught it was a stroke of luck.) Those moments share screen time with free-form scenes of Bruce wandering alone through the California desert near Joshua Tree, offering comments on both the songs and his own struggle to reconcile his stoic loner and loving husband/father sides. There are stoic poses galore, as well old clips of scruffy young Springsteen and rare Super 8 films of his honeymoon with Scialfa that Zimny found buried in the archives.
Sometimes he cracks wise (“Nineteen albums, and I’m still writing about cars”). Sometimes he goes into saloon-philosopher mode, offering the sort of deep thoughts (“Walk on through the dark, because that’s where the next morning is”) that longtime fans will tell you are part of the ride when you pay for the ticket. All of it seems part of the self-reflective phase Springsteen has been going through over the past few years; he admitted in the Q&A that the movie is the last part of “a story I haven’t really told before” that includes his 2016 memoir Born to Run and his 2018 Broadway residency. Introspection suits him, especially if this is the kind of art we’re getting from him now. He’d hoped the film would help people understand a little better what the songs were getting at. Mission accomplished.
But Western Stars isn’t a therapy session. It’s a portrait of lightning momentarily bottled, the way all great concert movies are. It’s the pleasure of watching a guy who’s been doing this for 50-plus years find yet another way to make it fresh without abandoning what made it great in the first place. And it’s also a personal look at someone working it out through his music, looking to find a sense of peace in the spotlight and realizing, with a sigh of relief, that he’s actually found it.