“Hello,” said Bruce Springsteen, addressing a small group of media and people from the film and music industry on Thursday morning. “Thanks for showing up.” The Toronto International Film Festival occasion was a private pre-premiere screening of Western Stars, a concert-doc version of his 2019 album of the same name. Forty-six years after Springsteen’s first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., the rock troubadour now greets us in cowboy boots, turquoise jewelry and a slow drawl as deep as the tan on his 69-year-old hide.
“I don’t know how familiar many of you were familiar with the record at all,” said Springsteen, who took part in a postscreening Q&A at a downtown multiplex. The record, for those unfamiliar with Springsteen’s 19th studio album, is a sweeping homage to heartbreak, the open road and the early seventies Southern California pop of the Jimmy Webb and Wichita Lineman kind. Taking part in the on-stage chat with Springsteen were the film’s co-director Thom Zimny and TIFF documentary programmer Thom Powers. (It’s quite possible the two gentlemen had never come in contact with a fellow “Thom” in the wild before – imagine a tiger suspiciously sizing up a lion for the first time.)
Springsteen and Zimny, who are long-time collaborators, mostly spoke about the structure of a film that consists of an intimate concert in the Boss’s barn in California, threaded with evocative, Springsteen-narrated vignettes full of horse metaphors, pick-up trucks, home movies, jacket collars turned up against the California desert wind and archival footage from Eisenhower-era Americana. “Those pieces in between the music really traced the emotional arc of album, and brought the album and what it was about much more to the fore,” explained Springsteen, who described the film as a tone poem. “Those pieces were meant to lead you into what the songs were sort of containing.”
The songs – string-laden, softly majestic and allegorically rich – address themes of loneliness, open roads and the battle between our transitory nature and a need for community. “The film is about making that journey, making your peace with having a life, actually allowing yourself to have a life,” the Badlands singer told the room. “And being able to enjoy that life, along with all of the pain and the happiness that it brings, you know, and a lot of the pain that it takes to get there.”
And so on. In Western Stars the album, the meditation on love, pain and regret is done through place and character – a broken-up stuntman, a faded cowboy-movie star, a sundown songwriter – and with lovely melodies. In Western Stars the film, the lyrical themes are belaboured and over-explained. Sometimes it’s enough to simply say, “Everybody’s got a hungry heart,” as Springsteen did in 1980.
Visually, the film is altogether beautiful, whether exterior shots of big skies, sunrises and miles of cactus plants, or filmed inside a lofty barn dressed up with whisky-bar decorations as a Saturday night saloon. Western Stars is somewhere between breathtaking and the longest banquet-beer commercial ever made.
Springsteen is backed up by an orchestra, small choir and a band that includes his wife Patti Scialfa, a singer who first strapped her hands across Springsteen’s engine in the late 1980s. The whole album is performed with Scialfa and husband strumming their way through pensive songs such as Hitch Hikin', Tucson Train, The Wayfarer and There Goes My Miracle, a song with epic-pop ambitions. With all the close-ups of guitar headstocks, the executives at Gibson Brands, Inc. will be pleased.
In 2016, Springsteen released his memoir, Born to Run (named after his classic 1975 album and song). In late 2017, he began performing his memoir-inspired Springsteen on Broadway song-and-words show at the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York. The sold-out residency lasted into December, 2018, and spawned a Netflix documentary directed by Zimny. The documentary Western Stars, in which Springsteen talks about his struggle to love and to let go of his “destructive qualities,” is the third part of his autobiographical journey.
The concert aspect of Western Stars closes with a cover of Rhinestone Cowboy. As Springsteen sings “I’m gonna be where the lights are shinin’ on me,” he looks directly into the camera, a New Jersey Shore boy done good. Once the next Bob Dylan, he’s now the last Glen Campbell.
Western Stars screens during the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 13, 11 a.m., Winter Garden Theatre and Sept. 14, 9:45 p.m., Scotiabank (tiff.net)
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