On his latest album Western Stars, Bruce Springsteen sings about a cinematic cowboy watching life pass him by. It’s a painfully personal record about a man who isn’t sure whether he prefers the open road or a grounded family life. Much like the final doorway shot in The Searchers, in which John Wayne watches his family play inside as the desert calls to him from behind, the struggle to choose between freedom and communal life is apparent in Springstein’s work — and life — right now. In the companion documentary Western Stars, this central theme is complemented by retrospective soliloquies that provide a doorway into The Boss’ soul.
There’s something overwhelming about watching a life-long hero on the big screen, a place where larger-than-life figures literally become larger-than-life. At this stage in his career, Springstein isn’t getting any smaller. He’s still tall, tan and handsome. He is also still putting out tons of material. In 2016 he released a 500-page memoir, as well a Broadway show — both of which opened with the artist discussing the irony of a mega-star singing about blue collar America.
But he didn’t start out as a star, and he never considered himself one, so much as an everyday guy. Fans would chant “Bruuuuce” at concerts because “Bruuuce” spoke their language. “In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream,” he roared in Born to Run. It’s a line that perfectly summed up the struggles of the working class.
At 70, the roaring days are over. Don’t expect anything like the famous hip-shaking on stage with Courtney Cox in the “Dancing in the Dark” music video. The tone here is elegiac; like a breeze in a barren desert. Shot at his barn in New Jersey among family and friends, the setting is so intimate it feels as if you received your very own invitation. The medium shots catch the sweat dripping off Bruce’s leathery skin onto his acoustic guitar. When he sings about the hardships of marriage alongside his wife Patti Scialfa, it’s raw and emotional.
The best rock docs offer more than just concert footage, of course. The genre’s sans pareil, Gimme Shelter, spends over half the run time with The Rolling Stones before Altamont even starts. The film’s co-director Thom Zimmy, takes a similar approach here. In between songs at the barn, the setting shifts to Joshua Tree National Park, where The Boss describes the background to each song before he proceeds to perform it.
Sometimes this added footage is as silly as a truck commercial. Drone shots of a vintage El Camino riding off into the sunset as a voice over growls ponderous things like “are we really moving forward?” could have easily been a mistake. But cinematographer Joe DeSalvo’s vivid imagery — juxtaposing a wandering Springstein with a galloping pony — more than justifies Western Stars as a cinematic experience.
Yet it’s the music that creates the most memorable images. “It’s my 19th album and I’m still writing about cars” he says with a smile about his latest, released this past June. In “Hello Sunshine,” his character is trying to find himself on the road, only to discover that all roads lead to relationships. Another highlight is “Hitch Hiker,” a folk song that makes the most of a 30-piece orchestra, inviting the listener into the world of a drifter with nowhere to go. Guided by breezy strings, the pit stops include a father, a trucker and a lonely racer, all of whom symbolize the singer at different points of his career.
It’s a rare treat to hear such opulent compositions and anachronistic tales in Dolby Atmos sound. What’s even rarer is hearing music with tough subject matter told through a hopeful voice. Depression sells in 2019. The Billboard Top 100 flaunts artists like Billie Eilish, whose noirish fantasies leave the listener just as sad as she is. But Springstein could sing about the same youthful uncertainties and have audiences energized, ready to take control of their lives.
That powerful feeling will once again inspire die-hard fans, while newcomers will have the chance to make a connection with a one-of-a-kind artist. Ever since he burst on the scene in 1975, The Boss has yet to disappoint. Western Stars is further proof that any door he opens and any path he takes is worth following.
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