Western Stars – Springsteen’s Cinematic View of America

I am up there when it comes to being a fan of Bruce Springsteen. He is in my amorphous list of artists whose every new release I am ready to devour and presumably love. What I have found, however, is that the artists on that list often fall short. It may be a function of the harsh reality that most artists do their best work in the first half of their career. (Notable exceptions fortunately and delightfully break the rule, I am looking at you Bob Dylan, Nick Lowe and a few others).

So it was with some trepidation that I approached “Western Stars” a film by Thom Zimny and Bruce Springsteen. The film has been in release for several months, and two different albums of the songs have been released. The film opens with the standard long shadows of late afternoon, on the prairie with drone footage of possibly wild horses. Bruce in his cowboy gear and hands in the dirt gets a hold of the steering wheel of a timeless pickup truck and heads to a hundred year old barn.

Los Angeles, April 26, 2012

Lots to unpack in those opening minutes. Springsteen has already bared his fraudulence in his fantastic “Springsteen on Broadway” production (“I was the Born to Run kid, I built my image on cars and I could not even drive”). In his autobiography (on which the Broadway production was based, to universal acclaim) he speaks about the little known cowboy culture of New Jersey and he currently lives on a farm there with plenty of horses.

But “Western Stars” tries for a far broader sweep. In voiceover, he intones that it is “a 13 song meditation of the struggle between individual freedom and communal life.”

Anaheim, December 4, 2012

The 100 year old barn in which the music is performed is likely on Springsteen’s property, probably the one in New Jersey he describes in his autobiography. In other words, we jump cut from the prairie and mountains. He and wife Patti each start the performance with a shot (Springsteen has eschewed drinks and drugs for decades).

His voiceovers give the songs context, and he continues the soul-baring insights of his prior production. Invariably, the myth of California weaves often through the production; witness all the Joshua trees. The new music evokes the wonderful era of Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb. Think “Wichita Lineman” and the impressions of wide open spaces, melancholy, tasteful string arrangements. Indeed, he pays direct tribute to Webb in “Sundown.” As the end credits unspool, the guy from the Jersey shore rolls into “Rhinestone Cowboy” and it all sorta fits.

On balance, the music is given more oomph with the accompanying visuals. But it is likely that before too long “Western Stars” will be viewed as an expensive detour on Springsteen’s path back and forth across the American landscape.

(concert photography by Brad Auerbach)

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.