Though most of the music I listen to has been described by my friends as “dad music”, for some reason, I never really got into Bruce Springsteen. Of course I was always aware of his music (is it possible not to be?) but I never added any of his work to my personal music rotation and, whenever a song of his came on the radio, it was on to the next station. Then, one August day, after years of rejecting The Boss, plans to see Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark fell through (name a more iconic duo than Kern and oversleeping), and I found myself at the cinema hours earlier than I had to be for our intended second feature (Where’d You Go Bernadette in case you care), with Blinded by the Light the only film showing at the right time that I hadn’t seen. Blinded by the Light was very cheesy and I came out of it saying I still didn’t like Springsteen but it was just such a nice film that I couldn’t help but love, and I may have teared up a couple of times. Then, the next morning I woke up and wanted nothing more than to listen to some Bruce Springsteen classics and, in the time since, for the first time I’ve listened to many of his songs in earnest and found quite a lot to love.
My conversion to being a Springsteen fan couldn’t have come at a better time as it coincided with the release of the concert movie Western Stars, Springsteen’s directorial debut with co-director Thom Zimny. Springsteen has long described himself as a cinephile and, though a concert movie doesn’t always readily invite cinematic references, he makes the most of what he has with classic westerns serving as a heavy inspiration. Beautiful landscape shots and pondering introspections punctuate the time between songs and make it clear that the interest wasn’t solely to present the songs but to explore a different art form. The parallels with the westerns Springsteen grew up with don’t end with shots placing him in the shoes of a wandering cowboy and lines ripped straight from the classics (that do work quite well in the context, especially the closer), but the songs themselves reinforce the imagery and the titular track is an homage to the faded celebrities who once lit up our screens.
Filmed in Springsteen’s 100-year-old barn over the course of a few days with a 30 piece orchestra and a small audience, the camera work is tightly focused and gives the feeling of being at the kind of intimate performance that would never be possible with a star of that stature. The sense of intimacy is strengthened by beautiful sound design (see it in a theater with the best sound system money can buy, I promise it’ll be worth it) that didn’t just capture the music but preserved all of the slight errors that were corrected in the album and furthered the feeling it was a live performance. Best of all, on multiple occasions the barn could be heard creaking and I was instantly transported to the venue.
Like other filmmakers, such as Tarantino, Almodóvar, and Scorsese, have done in recent months, Bruce Springsteen uses his latest work to reflect on a long and prosperous career nearing its end. In the most direct, and perhaps also the most effective instance of this, Springsteen ponders the changing nature of metaphors and considers that his early songs may have entirely different meanings to modern audiences than those he initially intended and, with that in mind, he crafted new songs with different meanings but the same symbolism. Though I’ve only recently become acquainted with Springsteen’s work, especially in comparison to those other examples, Western Stars was as poignant and affecting as any of those films with similar intents, and it stands as both an excellent concert film and an excellent album.