TIFF Review: ‘Western Stars’

Bruce Springsteen’s latest concert doc is a fine companion to the album of the same name

6 mins read

Western Stars
(USA, 83 min)
Dir. Thom Zimny, Bruce Springsteen
Programme: Galas (World Premiere)

Over the last 24 months Bruce Springsteen has been on a reinvention of sorts. After the publication of his memoir Born to Run, he parlayed the stories of his childhood and rock-and-roll mythmaking into a celebrated Broadway show. Western Stars forms the other part of this series, as an album and a documentary providing other facets, albeit more fictionalized, of the man and his music.

Western Stars, the record, draws from 1970s California country music, exemplified by the likes of Jimmy Webb and Glenn Campbell. It’s a string saturated, highly cinematic vision of the West, with dusty trails and a sense of both wonder and ennui. The music combines the lushness of a pop symphony with a formidable country-blues tradition. The disc is a series of story-songs, perfectly in keeping with Springsteen’s tradition.

The documentary, co-directed by Springsteen with his long-time collaborator and visual chronicler Thom Zimny, similarly evokes classic Western tropes, from John Ford vistas, to beat-up pickup trucks and dusty blue jeans. Uncharitably, the elements could easily fit into a credit card commercial, the exact kind of “sell out” shtick that lyrically Springsteen evokes on the title track of the record. Yet somehow, almost implausibly, this visual representation of the album’s themes works, proving to be a fine companion to this exceptional late-career recording.

The primary pull of the film is a concert recorded at one of Springsteen’s ranches. Inside a century-old barn, an intimate show was captured, with Springsteen accompanied by an orchestra and the fine session musicians used on the record. Many arrangements are modified from the album, including a few moments that were sung solo but now are joined by Bruce’s long-time-collaborator (and wife) Patti Scialfa. The nostalgia for their love is not dissimilar to the sentiments expressed in the Broadway show, and even if it’s sometimes laid on a bit thick, it’s clear that the two really do seem to dig each other after three decades.

Interspersed with the songs are narrated asides, either set as voiceover or spoken directly to camera. They serve as both introduction and annotation to the tracks, again performing a similar function to the monologue portions of the Broadway show. For lyrics as dense as these, it’s a welcome way in, especially for casual viewers, to get a sense of what’s being evoked. The creation of fictional characters is perfectly in keeping with the New Jersey denizens Springsteen has sung about for decades. It’s a different kind of mythologizing that simply has shifted postal codes but still speaks of the same notions of longing, loving and leaving.

As presented at Roy Thompson Hall, the 5.1 sound mix was suitably lush, though interestingly his vocals would shift from dead centre during monologues to a more record-like divide in left-and-right channels for the music sections. The other instruments, from strings, horns and percussion in the orchestra to the country rock, pedal-steel anchored ensemble, fill out both the front and surround speakers, making one feel very much like you’re in the middle of that barn sitting at a table lit by tealight candles, sipping a beer and enjoying the vibe.

As performance, the show is exceptional, no surprise given the chops of Springsteen and his musicians, who have, as Malcolm Gladwell observed, put in “way more than 10,000 hours” into their craft. It’s possible that those unfamiliar with Springsteen or ‘70s California country music, will find it all a bit much—insular and (strange for a barn setting) ostentatious. Yet the performances are so pure and lovingly realized, it may well generate new fans. And for Springsteen nuts? Well, they’ll be positively over-the-moon with this addition to his canon.

Western Stars is as core to the Springsteen story as his Broadway show and the Seeger Sessions (his tribute to Pete Seeger and folk music). Zimny’s editing and directorial style is hardly rewriting the book on this kind of film, yet it’s still visually energetic and cut sympathetically to both lyric and instrumental flourishes. The soliloquies by Springsteen are as warm and gravelly as his voice, and the bright sunlight a great contrast to the warm moodiness inside the barn.

In short, Western Stars is fundamental to Springsteen’s canon, and the film does much to solidify the ideas behind the project. As a closing track over the credits, the band performs a sublime version of the Glenn Campbell 1975 hit “Rhinestone Cowboy,” which seemed syrupy on AM radio but is given here a chance to shine. With his stories of cowboys, drifters and broken stuntmen, Springsteen finds another way into the American psyche, and the documentary serves as a perfect primer and celebration of his remarkable recording.

Western Stars opens theatrically in October.

Visit the POV TIFF Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor/Chief Critic at ThatShelf.com and a regular contributor for POV Magazine, RogerEbert.com and CBC Radio. His has written for Slashfilm, Esquire, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Screen Anarchy, HighDefDigest, Birth.Movies.Death, IndieWire and more. He has appeared on CTV NewsChannel, CP24, and many other broadcasters. He has been a jury member at the Reykjavik International Film Festival, Calgary Underground Film Festival, RiverRun Film Festival, TIFF Canada's Top 10, Reel Asian and Fantasia's New Flesh Award. Jason has been a Tomatometer-approved critic for over 20 years.

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