You don't have to be a huge Bruce Springsteen fan to appreciate Western Stars. This performance documentary, which the Boss co-directed with Thom Zimny, is an insightful look at what went into crafting the songs on his most recent album. As refreshingly down-to-earth as he is reflective, Springsteen provides background information that makes the tunes resonate strongly, whether it's your first time hearing them or your hundredth.
The setting is a beautiful old barn Springsteen and wife Patti Scialfa own. It serves as a makeshift concert hall. Flanked by Scialfa, backing musicians, and a small orchestra, the Boss performs everything on his 2019 CD of the same name, as well as a killer cover of Glen Campbell's “Rhinestone Cowboy” for an encore.
The performance is intimate, with the camera getting up close on him so we can register the emotion with which he sings. Springsteen's songs are often told from the point of view of fictional characters he creates, and at times, it seems as though he's physically acting out those characters. The musical arrangements, meanwhile, are elegant. We're used to Bruce the rocker. Here, the vibe is more stripped-down, but by no means minimalist. All of it is designed to emphasize the themes of the songs.
Before each number, Western Stars offers montages of images – horses running, cars driving, breathtaking landscapes, etc. In voiceover narration, Springsteen introduces the song we're about to hear, telling us what inspired it, who the character is, and/or what he hopes it will convey. We recognize almost immediately that these are very personal compositions. Early on, he reveals that, for many years, he felt a compulsion to hurt people who cared about him. Many of the songs are about human imperfection or people realizing the impact of their own bad decisions, much as he has apparently done.
The entire structure of Western Stars is hypnotic. Because Springsteen gives us perspective on the meanings of the tunes first, we automatically listen to them more closely than we might otherwise. We hang on each word, notice each bit of phrasing. The result is a greater awareness of what Bruce is trying to achieve with this album. In the end, it's a monumental work about regret, remorse, and learning how to love. There's maybe even a touch of self-forgiveness thrown in, too.
There are plenty of great documentaries about great musicians. Not many have the soul of this one, nor the revelations of the artist's mind. Western Stars is nothing short of fantastic.
out of four
Western Stars is rated PG for some thematic elements, alcohol and smoking images, and brief language. The running time is 1 hour and 23 minutes.