Bruce Springsteen eases into a damn fine feature-film directing debut, aided and abetted by his longtime collaborator Thom Zimny, with Western Stars, a transporting musical ode to the American West — old, new, and all those hypnotic and haunting shades in between. It’s true that the movie, in which Springsteen sings all 13 original songs from his latest album (his first studio collection in five years), could pass for a filmed concert. But his narration about the origins of the songs, accompanied by gorgeous Western footage, some of it shot at California’s Joshua Tree National Park, adds up to a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
With no tour planned to promote the album, Western Stars becomes a permanent record of this modern Springsteen classic. Filmed in front of a small audience of friends under the cathedral ceiling of a 100-year-old barn on the Springsteen estate in Colts Neck, New Jersey, this performance film finds Springsteen venturing into fresh territory. Onstage with Patti Scialfa, his bandmate and wife of 27 years, he delivers those songs live with a rare and indelible intimacy. Yes, there’s a 30-piece orchestra behind them (oh, those strings), but the singer and his collaborators feel as close as a whisper.
Only last year, Netflix released a film version of Springsteen on Broadway, a record of his 14-month run in New York, in a show that found the songwriter telling his own life story through personal recollections and acoustic versions of his greatest hits. Western Stars is another thing entirely. The songs on this album allow the singer to take on the identities of other characters and find aspects of himself in all of them, including a stunt man, a rookie rider who tries to heal his heartbreak by breaking horses, and a has-been cowboy star who once acted in a film where he was “shot by John Wayne,” a story he gets to tell for years.
The film, bathed in gorgeous shadow and light by cinematographer Joe DeSalvo, gets more personal as it moves along. You can feel the romantic ache when Springsteen and Scialfa duet on “Stones.” And on “Moonlight Motel,” the film flashes back to home movies of the couple on their honeymoon in Yosemite. But no one is selling sentiment here. There is a tenderness in the music that never disguises the fact that love leaves bruises. Pure joy is saved for the encore number, in which Springsteen and his crew get down to Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy,” an exuberant anthem about making it despite the odds.
That 1975 hit might seem eons apart from the poetic yearning of this new collection of songs. Yet Springsteen uses riveting urgency of his growl to bridge the gap between a “star-spangled rodeo” and the figure of a lonely cowboy set against a mythic American landscape. In both cases, he feels the human need to “ride down easy” after the body blows of life. Springsteen believes completely in the power of storytelling through the medium of music. And thanks to his consummate artistry, we believe it too.