Bruce Springsteen had one goal in mind when he decided to step behind the camera to co-direct Western Stars — which is a live recreation of the album of the same name — he wanted to forge a deeper connection between him and his fans.
“It’s a continuation of the conversation we’ve been having since I was a young man,” the 20-time Grammy winner says.
The documentary (out Oct. 25), which is a concert film mixed in with the singer’s musings on life, premiered last month at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Following his 2016 memoir, Born to Run, and his sold-out Broadway shows in 2017 and 2018, Springsteen, who recently turned 70, says both the film and the album of the same name wrap up a trilogy, of sorts. It’s a storyline that has found him still wrestling with love, loss, doubt, loneliness and regret.
“The older you get, the heavier the baggage becomes that you haven’t sorted through,” Springsteen says in the film. “So you run. And I’ve done a lot of that kind of running.”
Western Stars is co-directed by Thom Zimny, who worked with the rocker on The Promise documentary and shot Springsteen on Broadway for Netflix. It started out as just a straight concert film, but Springsteen found himself writing passages to bridge the songs as a way to cinematically reframe his 19th studio album.
“The filming really deepened the emotional content of the record,” Springsteen said following a morning screening of Western Stars in Toronto last month. “If you listen to the record, it’s its own experience, but making the film allowed me to tell a story that I hadn’t directly told before. It’s hinted at over the years in a lot of my work, and if you read the book I wrote or saw some of the play … but filming just deepens the emotional content of that music in a way I hope will provide some entertainment and inspiration and insight to my fans.”
“We gathered up a lot of ideas and stumbled into the desert,” Zimny added.
In the lead up to the record’s release in June, the Oscar winner knew he wasn’t going to tour to support it. Still, he wanted a way to communicate the album’s themes to his fans.
“I said, ‘We’ll just shoot the stuff live, from start to finish,’ which we did and then we figured we’ll do some interviews (with) people talking about how great I am to work with and,” Springsteen continued, breaking into a laugh, “what a pleasure and honour it was … the usual s—. We started to do some of that, and it didn’t quite feel right.”
So he hunkered down one evening and wrote a script that threads the performances together.
“I needed to draw people into the songs as they came up on screen … It ties up some of the philosophical threads I’ve been working on my whole life, really, since I was a kid. I say at the beginning of the picture, ‘There are two sides of the American character. There’s the solitary side and the side that yearns for connection and community.’ I’ve spent a lifetime trying to get from one to the other … how to reconcile those two things. It might be all those three things, the book, the play, the film, are summing up my truth to this point.”
Shot in a 100-year-old barn on his New Jersey estate with a 30-piece orchestra, the 13 intimate tracks, plus a bonus cover of Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy, capture faded movie stars, stuntmen, drifters, aging characters and people running from circumstances beyond their control.
“You run until you’ve left everything that you’ve loved and that loves you behind,” he says in one of the film’s interludes.
As he segues from one song to another, Springsteen peels back a layer of his personality and ushers you into his innermost world. One that has seen him over the years “hurt” the people closest to him. It also offers a glimpse into his relationship with his wife of 28 years, Patti Scialfa, with a rare look at some of the couple’s home videos added into the mix.
“We’ve been together a long time … when we gather around that microphone, there’s a lot of living there,” he said with a laugh. “Of all kinds. Nobody knows me better than she does … We sing together in a way that you can only sing that way when you’ve lived together that long. The film is really a love letter to my wife.”
Already one of his best and most deeply personal recordings, the spoken-word moments flesh out its philosophical themes. One can only wonder how a similar approach to some of his earlier works might have turned out.
It’s the sequences in between the songs, where he gives us insight into his fractured past and his unyielding desire to tell the stories of people just outside the limelight that find Western Stars leaving a lasting impression.
“The film is about making your peace with having a life, actually allowing yourself to have a life, and being able to enjoy that life along with all of the pain and the happiness that it brings,” he said, describing the portrait he and Zimny painted.
“Hopefully, watching it gets you in touch with that trip that you had to make, ‘cause we all have to make that trip in some way.”
As he carefully plumbs who he was in his early years during the film’s interludes, Springsteen gives movie watchers raw insight into his emotional life. And speaking over wide panoramic shots Zimny captured in California, he talks about how his marriage to Scialfa helped him to scrub the destructive parts of his personality.
“I was in my early 30s and I started to wonder, ‘Where is my everything?’ The band was great, we were playing great, but there wasn’t a lot else,” he said following the premiere. “That’s when I started to do some analysis. I saw that I was just stonewalling … I didn’t have any place to go, but I needed to go someplace else very badly.
“I think if you want to thrive in life and continue to be creative both in your personal life and work life, you need to make these leaps of consciousness that will help you to move to the next place. And what allows you to move to the next place is, in the end, love. Love is what gets us through … how do I find my way there? That’s what the film’s about.”
Of course, mortality weighs on him. The character in the title track: “wakes up in the morning, just glad his boots are on.”
Springsteen knows he has less years in front of him than behind. But he doesn’t see an end in sight.
“I’ve lost some good friends — some of my closest friends. That becomes a part of your life. You do your best with it … I miss a lot of the people who aren’t here now who could share in (my) defeats and victories. Family thins out a little bit and then I look around at some of the guys in the band that have passed away (Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons) and it’s just part of life. It registers on you and finds its way into your work. But we carry on.”
Flanked by Zimny following the film’s first public screening, Springsteen hinted he’s maybe done introspecting — for now. He joked about becoming a professional wrestler next.
Talk turned to his work with the E Street Band, who last toured in 2016 to mark the 35th anniversary of The River.
“We want to get the band back together,” he said.
“I’ve got some songs I’ve written for the band. I would like to make a really good rock record with the E Street Band … I’ll always be with (them), that’s something that’s never going to leave me.”
Western Stars opens Friday, Oct. 25.