Film Review: ‘Western Stars’ Is A Different Kind Of Concert Film
Bruce Springsteen has left his mark on the big screen in 2019. Blinded By The Light, a coming of age story inspired by The Boss’ music, opened to overwhelmingly positive reviews in August, while the similarly-acclaimed Western Stars is in theaters now. The rock legend’s directorial debut (he shared the task with long-time collaborator Thom Zimny) falls somewhere between concert film and visual poem. Both aspects are enjoyable, but it really soars when the 20-time Grammy winner takes the stage in his cathedral-like barn.
Given that Springsteen won’t tour Western Stars (the first time he has refrained from taking an album on the road since 1982’s Nebraska), this might be the one and only time we hear these songs live. Which makes the film not only essential viewing for fans, but also an important rock artifact. On this front, the film succeeds brilliantly. Springsteen is one of the greatest performers of all time, and he effortlessly brings the album’s eclectic mix of So-Cal pop, country leanings and orchestral overtures to life.
70-years-old and rocking an unbuttoned shirt, black jeans and a gold earring, the songsmith still commands the stage like a Rock God. Of Course, The Boss is ably accompanied by his band and a 30-piece orchestra. In lesser hands, this could have been a hodgepodge of sounds, but Springsteen nimbly walks the line between orchestral pomp and stripped-back country. Every string and horn is expertly arranged to propel his homespun storytelling forward. The setting result is both intimate and, at times, unexpectedly epic.
It’s hard to single out highlights from a concert as meticulously arranged and emotionally honest as this. Every song is elevated, becoming bigger, bolder and more compelling in the live setting. However, the pathos and pure Americana of the title track is hard to beat, while “There Goes My Miracle” is a gorgeous burst of ’60s pop that captures the rough majesty of the Boss’ voice better than most. As far as sheer emotion goes, “Stones” reigns supreme. Particularly on the chorus when Bruce shares the microphone with his wife, E Street Band member Patti Scialfa.
Oh, and then there’s Springsteen’s wonderfully scruffy rendition of Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy,” a song that isn’t featured on the titular album (but does appear on the soundtrack). The film is less successful, unfortunately, in its composition. Intercutting each song with a snippet of documentary footage takes you out of the performance — again and again. While some of the commentary is illuminating, particularly when explaining songs like “Sleepy Joe’s Café,” a lot of it feels unnecessary and strangely disjointed.
I hope that there’s an option to watch the concert by itself when Western Stars gets an inevitable streaming and home entertainment release. The performance is revelatory and deserves to be cherished and remembered without interruption or explanation. An in-depth documentary about The Boss needs to be made at some point, this just isn’t the right vehicle to dig into his psyche. The music can and does speak for itself.