The film begins with an aerial shot of a wide-open desert plain, with wild horses running free. There’s an old barn, a car, a weathered hand sporting turquoise jewelry grasping a steering wheel, a silhouette of a man in a cowboy hat.
That’s not the way you would normally think of Bruce Springsteen introducing himself — but “Western Stars,” which had its world premiere on Thursday at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, is not a normal Bruce Springsteen film. Borrowing from the imagery of his recent album of the same name, it’s both an intimate concert film and a series of musings on solitude and community in song and story.
And if it places New Jersey’s rock ‘n’ roll poet laureate in a different setting from most of his work, it is wholly true to the spirit of a remarkable artist who has spent the last few decades grappling with personal demons and being open about his search for peace and refuge.
The film, which will be released by Warner Bros. in October, is essential viewing for Springsteen fans, of course (and I am in that camp, of course), but it has the grace and humanity to connect outside his devoted fan base as well.
“Western Stars” goes far deeper than the usual performance document, to sensitively explore what he sees as the state of his, and our, lives. It’s a ruminative, almost elegiac look at Springsteen’s life and career, filled with moments of uncommon beauty that makes it of a piece with this latest, most introspective phase of his career.
“Everybody’s broken in some way,” he says at one point. “In this life, nobody gets away unhurt… We’re always trying to find somebody whose broken pieces fit with our broken pieces, and something whole emerges.”
Over the past decade, Springsteen has released a string of full-length films to accompany his albums, but most have been either concert performances or making-of documentaries — and until now, most of them have been credited solely to Springsteen’s longtime collaborator, director Thom Zimny. But “Western Stars” is even more of a collaboration, sporting Springsteen’s name alongside Zimny as co-director.
(The two men also share the directing credit on 2014’s 10-minute short “Hunter of Invisible Game,” which fashioned a Cormac McCarthy-style post-apocalyptic scenario around a Springsteen song.)
Together, Springsteen and Zimny take a deep dive into the “Western Stars” album, which on the surface might have seemed an odd choice for that kind of treatment. When Springsteen put out the album in June, it was immediately clear that he’d turned the rather remarkable trick of making a completely singular record almost 50 years deep in his recording career.
Like very few of his other albums — the improvisational sprawl of 1973’s “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle” and the raucous folk of 2006’s “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions” come to mind, but not much else — “Western Stars” seems to stand alone in style and feel.
It also seemed at the time to be a departure for the man who’d spent the last couple of years fashioning and performing his Broadway show, “Springsteen on Broadway.” That project was the most personal thing Springsteen had ever done, a startlingly intense and intimate evening of songs and stories that drew direct connections between his life and his work.
“Western Stars,” on the other hand, felt like one of the least personal things Springsteen had done. The songs, with their country influences and with arrangements drawn from Los Angeles pop of the late ’60s and early ’70s, told the stories of characters adrift in the West: A hitchhiker, a long-haul truck driver, a fading star of Western movies, a stuntman, a failed country songwriter.
Springsteen has long explored his own issues through working-class characters, but the lives he depicts in the “Western Stars” songs felt like people from another world; the album was lovely, but on the surface it didn’t seem to say much about the man who made it, other than that he loved the records Glen Campbell made with Jimmy Webb and wanted to try his hand at that kind of thing.
But “Western Stars,” the film, shatters that take on “Western Stars,” the album. It is built around a performance of the complete album that took place in the hayloft of a 140-year-old barn on Springsteen’s property in New Jersey. Together with a 30-piece orchestra that includes strings, horns and five singers arranged by Springsteen’s wife, Patti Scialfa, the performances capture the lushness of the album but also bear down harder, making the songs a little rougher and a little sharper.
“It’s a place filled with the best kind of ghosts and spirits,” Springsteen says of the barn, and his performance lets those spirits come out to play.
In between the album’s 13 songs, Springsteen talks. In a way, this pulls “Western Stars” into the “Springsteen on Broadway” universe, making it a combination of intimate live performances linked by monologues that make personal connections between the work and the man who made it.
But Springsteen isn’t talking to the camera or to an audience, and for the most part he’s not telling anecdotes about his life – instead, he’s talking about the emotional roots of the songs and the characters on the “Western Stars” album, which he calls “a 13-song meditation on the struggle between individual freedom and communal life.”
Heard in voiceover while the camera gives quick glimpses of Bruce in the bar, Bruce on the ranch, Bruce in the car, Springsteen can sometimes sound a little stilted. But there’s no mistaking the depth of feeling he brings to this work, in which an array of characters stand in for his own struggles to stop running away, to stop hurting the people in his life, to embrace his better angels.
The songs and the stories nudge “Western Stars” to life as a moving chronicle of a man who will turn 70 later this month. “The older you get, the heavier that baggage becomes that you haven’t sorted through,” he says, making it clear that the album and the movie is part of that sorting-through.
Musically expansive and emotionally telling, “Western Stars” works through the album’s pain and hurt until it finds refuge in “Hello Sunshine,” the song that insists on fashioning a happy ending. “A love song … is the redemption of your heart,” he says. “We drive out of the darkness into sunshine and love.”
It makes for a lovely benediction, and he follows it with some goofy home movies of himself and Scialfa, and then with a performance of the album closer, “Moonlight Motel.” By this point, the small audience has left and the barn is empty, and Springsteen takes a song that sounds lonely on the album and claims it for love and beauty.
But it wouldn’t be a Bruce Springsteen performance without an encore, so Bruce and the band send us home with a cover version of a hit from Glen Campbell, whose songs from the 1960s and ’70s helped inspire “Western Stars.”
I won’t reveal which Glen Campbell song it is, except to say it’s one of the last ones I would want to hear. But it’s great anyway, and one more surprise in a film that finds new dimensions to the work of an essential artist.