' ' Cinema Romantico: Western Stars

Monday, April 13, 2020

Western Stars

Rather than go out on the road in support of “Western Stars”, his nineteenth studio album, Bruce Springsteen brought the tour directly to us at home in the form of a concert documentary he co-directed with Thom Zimny, setting up with a band and a 30-piece orchestra in the rustic, twinkly lit barn on his sprawling New Jersey property, as if he’s Gene Autry and this is version of an old barn dance. His backing group includes a few familiar faces, including his wife Patti Scialfa, but most differ from his longtime E Street counterparts and there is a moment near the doc’s end when Bruce says in voiceover something to the effect of how he and the band took some chances. Springsteen, however, is content to say this rather than show it and if the interplay between Springsteen and his famous bandmates has often been the best part of his other concert films, that proves far less paramount here, almost a solo show in disguise. Yes, there is a crowd (credited as “bar patrons”) but they hardly matter. Bruce spends most of the show with his head tilted a little high, almost like he’s looking past them, not needing to plug into their energy but finding his own energy within.

“Western Stars” sticks religiously to the album, songs 1 – 12, in the same order, though Springsteen spruces this up with between song monologues. These are in the vein of Springsteen’s Broadway show, like the notes he fastidiously concocted for his mid-century Songbook, not winding anecdotes of the young Springsteen shows but concise explanations. And though Springsteen has often said he writes songs to be of use in other people’s lives, these songs are also quite clearly about him, taking stock of his long road and grapples with the depression, as he has publicized. It’s what makes the concert’s lone curveball, a cover of Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy”, so poignant, since it was released the same year as “Born to Run”, as if he has now wound its way to back to the era in which he made his name. These interludes, though, are accompanied with footage of horses running through the west and Bruce walking in slow motion or contemplating some vista. It’s intended, I suppose, to add similar majestic sweep to the record, though that sweep is more dutifully conjured up in the sound of the orchestra. You don’t see Monument Valley when their strings come in but you feel it.

These scattered images of Bruce are meant to evoke him as the lonesome cowboy of these songs, of course, though they come across dull compared to the counterpoint of his wife and bandmate, a fine singer-songwriter in her own right, Patti Scialfa. She is positioned just over his left shoulder, strumming her guitar, singing backup, and it’s easy to wonder what she thinks about songs like “The Wayfarer”, pointedly about a man who can’t keep himself from wandering out on his cozy domestic lifestyle. I kept worrying he’d just keep singing and she’d never get her say. But when Bruce gets to “Stones”, his lament of masculinity, he lets Patti share the mic, even occasionally take the mic herself. If the repetition of that song’s refrain – “It’s only the lies that you told me” – left me more numb than moved listening to the album, seeing it live, with Patti singing “It’s only the lies that you told me” back to him, hoo boy, it opened the song up in a new way and I felt its power. “Moonlight Motel”, meanwhile, the closer, on the album came across like a return to a memory from before times went bad; in concert, it felt like a photo album come to life, returning to a happy memory and giving the rundown place of the title new life.

At one point, Springsteen mentions his predilection for songs about cars, reminding me of his old line about how he’d put all those people in his songs in cars and now he needed somewhere for them to go. As “Western Stars” rolls it credits, Bruce and Patti sit at the makeshift bar set up on the left hand side of the barn, the camera just watching, like they could be any old couple out for a night on the town. And I realized that’s why he’d summed up his “Western Stars” era by bringing it all back here, to New Jersey, to this barn; he pointed his car home.

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