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.
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