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Non-Review Review: Western Stars

Bruce Springsteen is one of the great American storytellers.

Through nothing more than his voice, Springsteen can conjure entire lives into being. Springsteen paints vivid pictures through his music. These are often portraits of masculinity and longing, poems reflecting on the perils and challenges of trying to navigate the modern world. To listen to a Springsteen album is to be transported into another world, one that often lives in the smaller details. There are very few working singer-songwriters who can communicate so clearly and so efficiently.

As such, Western Stars seems like a reasonable prospect. The film is effectively a cinematic companion piece to Springsteen’s latest album, which shares the same name. The appeal of a project like this is very straightforward. It is interesting to see how Springsteen’s storytelling sensibility translates from one medium to another. It’s not an irrational leap. Songwriter Nick Cave cultivated an interesting creative partnership with director John Hillcoat, co-writing The Proposition and Lawless. RZA wrote and directed The Man With the Iron Fists.

The concert film structure of Western Stars seems like a safe bet. After all, Bruce Springsteen is one of the most respected live musicians working in the world, and so a live rendition of his new album is a logical approach to this. However, Western Stars runs into one very serious problem, finding a way to turn Springsteen’s biggest strength into a weakness. Springsteen’s music is so good at telling its own story that any other attempt at narrative feels completely superfluous.

It’s interesting to imagine what an alternate version of Western Stars might have looked like. It was likely too much to expect something as experimental or as confident as Lemonade from an artist as grounded as Springsteen. Indeed, there’s something reassuringly straightforward about Western Stars, which is built around a no-frills live recording of the eponymous album in a barn on the edge of Springsteen’s property. The film is cut together from several concerts to family and friends, with Springsteen co-director and long-time collaborator Thom Zimny drinking in the atmosphere.

Western Stars works reasonably well as a concert film. There is a reason that Springsteen is widely regarded as one of the best live musicians in the world. Springsteen pours his heart and soul into his music, and clearly relishes the opportunity to bring it to life. The editing of Western Stars tends to focus on music as a communal experience; not only is the album performed with a thirty-piece opera, but the film juxtaposes the eerie emptiness of the barn before the concert with the energy of the crowd during the performances.

Springsteen clearly relishes playing with his collaborators. Zimny’s camera adds an appealing level of intimacy to the concert, allowing the audience to home to get up close and personal to Springsteen as he performs. Those close-ups are surprisingly effective, allowing the audience to watch Springsteen move through the emotional rollercoaster of his own music. It is oddly reassuring to know that Springsteen’s own music moves him as much as it moves any listeners. His eyes are expressive, and his reactions genuine.

There is something to be said for how Western Stars captures the personal nature of these concerts, even when projected on to a big screen and even when structured as part of a concert film that will screen around the world. This is much tougher than it sounds, and it is to the credit of directors Springsteen and Zimny that the film puts the audience in that intimate space with its subject. Concert films often capture scale and spectacle very well, recreating a sense of majesty and wonder. It is much harder to scale concerts downwards, but Western Stars accomplishes that.

Unfortunately, Western Stars is not just a concert film. The movie punctuates the album tracks with a series of meditations from Springsteen himself, monologues in which he speaks directly to the audience. Sometimes he is walking through the desert wearing his cowboy hat, sometimes he is sitting in a car at the side of the road. These sequences are populated by images of Americana; footage of roads, horses galloping in the desert, grainy home videos. Visually, Western Stars is solid, if a little cliché. It feels like an attempt to conjure up a mythical America, albeit in the most obvious manner possible.

However, the big problem is the way in which Springsteen introduces each song. Springsteen’s musics tells it’s own story, so Springsteen’s didactic introductions often seem superfluous and unnecessary. Springsteen one of the very best musical communicators working today, so to listen to his music is to understand him intrinsically. Springsteen’s music is rarely abstract or overtly symbolic. There is rarely any challenge in “decoding” his lyrics or his meaning. Even if the listener doesn’t catch every references, Springsteen sings with enough emotional candour that his meaning becomes clear.

As such, Springsteen’s introductions are often heavy-handed. Often, Springsteen discusses a song in terms of “metaphor”, but does so by quoting an image that the audience will hear a few seconds later in the opening bars of the song. Western Stars positions Springsteen as that guy explaining what a song is “really” about, when the song speaks for itself. To be fair to Springsteen, he is never obnoxious or self-important. There is never a sense that Springsteen is worried that the audience needs his music explained to them. However, there is still something a little redundant in this set-up.

Springsteen seems aware of this. Introducing the second track, he jokes, “Western Stars is my nineteenth studio album, and I’m still writing about cars!” However, Springsteen then goes on to ruminate upon what cars and driving mean to him, all of which should be clear from listening to any of those songs from those eighteen other albums. There are moments of introspection from Springsteen that work well – reflecting on his own shortcomings and walking the audience through his own life – but a lot of Western Stars falls into the trap of explaining something that doesn’t need to be explained.

This is a shame, because Western Stars itself is fairly solid as an album. Even within the film itself, it is surprisingly affecting to watch Springsteen perform to a room of people that he clearly considers friends. Indeed, the biggest problem with Western Stars is that the songs can really speak for themselves and so any further elaboration feels like a distraction.

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