Not your ordinary concert doc, “Western Stars” features Bruce Springsteen performing his recently released studio album in a New Jersey barn, while in voiceover passages in the California desert, he shares personal stories that resonate in the record’s music and lyrics.
The elements add up to a generous encounter with the Boss and stirringly demonstrate the art of music making.
Springsteen also makes his directorial debut with this film, sharing the role with Thom Zimny, director of previous Springsteen-related documentaries and the singer-songwriter’s 2017-18 Broadway stage project.
“This is my 19th album, and I’m still writing about cars,” Springsteen says about his “Western Stars” album, which features his familiar 1950s-style romanticism and themes of broken hearts, open space, lost souls and the American desire for solitude and personal independence on one hand and community and family on the other.
At the same time, Springsteen has shifted tonal gears. The record contains songs inspired by the lonely-hearts pop tunes of Jimmy Webb and hits of country singer Glen Campbell.
The concert takes place in the above-mentioned barn, a late-1800s-built structure described by Springsteen as filled with the “best kind of ghosts and spirits.” Here, Springsteen and his band members — most prominently, his longtime creative partner and wife, Patti Scialfa — along with a full orchestra, perform the album’s 13 songs.
Springsteen introduces and explains each song in voiceover segments shot in the Southern California desert. His musings reference Western movies, cowboy lore and mythic aspects of the American West. Sometimes, he assumes the persona of a character in a song, or shares personal photographs or footage.
The centerpiece song, “Western Stars,” involves a fading movie actor with stories to tell. He was “once shot by John Wayne,” for starters.
In “Somewhere North of Nashville” (“I lie awake in the middle of the night / Makin’ a list of things that I didn’t do right”), Springsteen addresses romantic regret.
As with most concert films, what transpires onscreen doesn’t deliver the atmospheric electricity of an in-person experience. And Springsteen’s philosophizing isn’t always profound.
But the barn is bursting with terrific music, and Springsteen and Zimny show the thrill involved in playing it. The camera brings viewers into the musicians’ individual artistic spaces and captures their creative interactions and collective spirit.
Springsteen’s contemplative desert passages, with their cinematic images of sunsets, cactus-dotted landscapes and wild horses, befit the western tone of the songs.
The concert ends with a song not on the album, “Rhinestone Cowboy.” Springsteen and company almost make the 1970s Campbell hit their own.
Starring: Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa
Directed by: Thom Zimny, Bruce Springsteen
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes