Documentary Review: Springsteen imagines himself one of those “Western Stars”

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For his 19th album, “Western Stars,” Hall of Fame rocker Bruce Springsteen turned his working class Americana short-stories-as-songs Southwestern in setting, and made his accompaniment orchestral.
And since he wasn’t going to tour to support it, he set out to make a “command performance” documentary, playing with a 30 piece orchestra — lots of strings — with a studio band that included accordion, pedal steel and banjo, Country and Western music staples.
It’s just him — in extreme, handsome close-ups — and assorted Gibson acoustic guitars, wife Patti Scialfa on guitar and backing vocals, four other backup singers and the rest of the orchestra, a large film crew and a few select guests playing in a gorgeous, bowed-roof 19th century barn on his New Jersey estate.
The songs hit on familiar themes as he takes on the guise of a hitch hiker, a crane operator, a songwriter aspiring to Nashville glory, and not getting anywhere, an itinerant cowboy “Chasin’ Wild Horses,” a faded “Western Star” and a veteran stunt man.
He sings about waiting for his baby to get there on the “Tuscon Train,” he croons an ode to “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe” and the “Moonlight Motel,” and takes stock of his career “Somewhere North of Nashville.”
And in between the songs, there’s a lot of somewhat labored narration, a quasi-poetic form of “liner notes” where he explains the dichotomy, the conflict of wanting to be that classic American loner vs. the need for community. He’s telling us how to receive the songs, adding a little biography about his life, his personal failings and struggles.
He co-directed the film, so he covers those words with endless shots of him driving the same sandy road in his ’70s El Camino, drinks pouring in either a soundstage recreation of a bar, or the deadest, quietest honky tonk in existence, of him taking off and putting on a cowboy hat, close-ups of his cowboy boots, and of hi –, a lonesome sort, leading a horse through Joshua Tree National Monument. No, he doesn’t ride it.
Sound kind of boring? It is.
The concert is studio recording pristine, with nary a flash of the passion, abandon and free-wheeling his epic concerts are famous for. When he sings about “stones in my mouth,” in “Stones,” that’s pretty much what he’s giving us — a straight-faced.stone-faced performance devoid of expression or spontaneity.
“Lifeless” is the right word for it.
There isn’t enough audience to warrant stage banter, which is why there’s rarely so much as applause between numbers. These are sessions, live on tape, repeated in performance until they’re damned near perfect. And damned near lifeless.

The faithful are going to want to see it, no matter what, as there is no tour for the album. The songs are perfectly serviceable, painting pictures of a stuntman (“Drive Fast”) with “I got two pins in my ankle and a busted collarbone, A steel rod in my leg, but it walks me home.”

He’s paying tribute to the great songwriter Jimmy Webb, he says, the fellow who wrote “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Galveston.” But the “concert” portion of “Western Stars” underlines its essential shortcoming with its encore, a spirited take on Larry Weiss’s “Rhinestone Cowboy,” a huge hit for Glen Campbell.

Whatever “Americana” short stories Springtsteen was reaching for, nothing he serves up here is remotely as memorable or as interesting. A musical quotation from Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” here, a Jimmy Webb’s Arizona there. The generic images of these short stories can’t help but remind one of all the storytelling singer-songwriters who cover the same ground, Willie Nelson among them.

As a film, I am stuck comparing it to Neil Young’s recent, rushed and self-directed recording-process documentary “Mountaintop,” a singer-songwriter not attempting the ambitious re-invention Springsteen is here, but playing and writing with passion and political purpose. Springsteen seems exhausted by comparison, although neither film has all that much to recommend it, cinematically.

A not-terribly-satisfying recent Asbury Park music history doc gave us more Springsteen biography without his laconic narration.

Then there was Steven Tyler’s vanity project trip to Nashville, “Out on a Limb,” which was, at least, amusing in addition to misguided.

“Western Stars,” earning limited release Oct. 25, isn’t misguided. It’s just dull and self-serious. But if you’re Bruce Springsteen, nobody around you’s going to point that out.

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MPAA Rating: PG for some thematic elements, alcohol and smoking images, and brief language

Cast: Bruce Springsteen, Patty Scialfa

Credits: Directed by Bruce Springsteen, Thom Zimny, narration by Bruce Springsteen. A Warner Brothers release.

Running time: 1:24

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8 Responses to Documentary Review: Springsteen imagines himself one of those “Western Stars”

  1. Eileen McInnes says:

    Dull and self serious ???? Maybe???? To someone with no inner life, no self reflection, and maybe to someone who has not yet reached the age of 70 yet with a massive history and story to reflect on…one can only wish by 70 that they have some empathy, compassion, remorse or I think it is safe to say if you don’t sir than your life maybe in fact Dull and self serious and if that will be your fate sir than you have chosen the right career of critic…wish you luck and well

    • Yeah, that’s why he should be graded on the curve. By his fans
      Like you. Dull self serious movie. Boring tunes. Did I miss anything?

      • Greg says:

        For what it’s worth, I could tell it was dull and self-serious just by sitting through the dull, self-serious trailer. The man himself is an absolute 4-star legend. But he’s no actor. Or director.

  2. KenB says:

    Is there anything that the smug, snarky Roger Moore actually likes? For me, a negative RM review means that I need to get out there and see the film because it’s probably quite good.

    • Yeah. The Linda Ronstadt doc is the year’s best music documentary biography. And we don’t see her walking a horse like it’s her Dalmation, as if she’s afraid of getting on it.

  3. Greg says:

    You called Jimmy Webb a “Country songwriter.” So I guess “Up, Up, and Away” and “MacArthur Park” are country songs. Or one of his beautiful songs featured in the Linda Ronstadt documentary, “Still Within the Sound of My Voice.” I could go on, but it would be better for you just to check the extensive list of songs Webb has written, easy to find as an appendix to his fairly recent autobiography. The point is, a comment that as is far off-base as this one makes me doubt the value of your opinion on anything. I’m not even a Springsteen-worshipper, btw. I read your review (and others) only because my spouse wants to see this movie.

    • For purposes of the review, “country” worked. That was the context Springsteen meant it, too, which is why I mentioned two of Webb’s country hits. Had I wanted to score points by suggesting “pompous bombast,” “Mac Park” would have been referenced. That wasn’t the case with these songs. I read the most recent Webb bio, and thinking about it, I have deleted “country.” But you do like to go on, don’t you? Predicating a whole rant on your ignorant assumptions based on how I chose to characterize a famous songwriter? A real Craftsman, you are. No longer sold by Sears.

  4. Paul English says:

    I’m hoping that those who see this excellent movie will take note of Bruce’s wonderful tribute to the great Jimmy Webb and investigate his amazing catalogue of music, including his own shamefully ignored solo albums over the past 50 years.
    I do think it would have been better if Bruce had finished with a Webb song, not necessarily one of the Webb/Campbell hits, instead of “Rhinestone Cowby”. But great as I say that JW was acknowledged.

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