“WESTERN STARS”: Hello Sunshine

Bruce Springsteen


“WESTERN STARS” My rating: A- (Now showing) |83 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Published October 31, 2019 by Robert W. Butler at Butler’s Cinema Scene

As a Springsteen geek of longstanding (I reviewed  his first album for the Kansas City Star back in ’73) I approached the concert film “Western Stars” with some trepidation.

In recent years Bruce Springsteen has published a superbly revelatory  autobiography and written, directed and performed a Tony-winning one-man Broadway show.

The trailer for his film “Western Stars” (the title of his most recent album) offers snippets of  our black-clad hero wandering across desert landscapes like a lost gunfighter, determinedly driving a pickup truck down a cactus-lined dirt track and communing with horses, all set to his voiceover musings.

This was worrisome.  Hadn’t Springsteen pretty much gotten it all out of his system with the book and the play?  Was there that much more there to explore?

Worse, the trailer makes it look like Bruce the Entertainer has been replaced by Mythic Bruce the Philosopher King, dropping pithy axioms on his fans. God, he isn’t going to call us all “Grasshopper,” is he?

I’m happy to report that those fears were unfounded. “Western Stars” is a brilliant piece of work, one that will thrill not only fans of the Boss but also more casual listeners (like Mrs. Butler, who pretty much gobbled up every minute).

It is at heart a concert film, with Springsteen and a 30-piece orchestra performing all the tracks from the “Western Stars” album (plus one killer bonus song) in a century-old barn on the Boss’s New Jersey farm.  Downstairs horses paw the  hay in their stalls; up in the loft a select audience hears the album unfold in what appears to be an acoustically perfect setting.

The musical renderings are outrageously good, thanks to Springsteen’s intimate delivery (you can hear every word) and some amazing string arrangements — even more impressive than on the album — that give the experience the epic scope of a ’50s Western movie.

And those between-song ruminations?

Well, they’re succinctly poetic, never pretentious, and they perfectly explain what Springsteen was aiming for in each of the songs.

The overarching theme, he tells us, is the eternal conflict between individual freedom and communal responsibility, a fact not only of his own life but of the American character.

He displays a bit of his trademark self deprecation (“My 19th album and I’m still writing about cars”) and says his goal is “to live with some small honor.”

He describes — without getting all sappy about it — how his marriage to Patti Scialfa more or less saved his life.

Written by Springsteen, who co-directed with longtime collaborator Thom Zimny, “Western Stars” is a hugely moving experience.

Boss, I never should have doubted you.

| Robert W. Butler

Read the original review and more reviews at Butler’s Cinema Scene

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Robert W. Butler for 41 years reviewed films for the Kansas City Star. In May 2011 he was downsized.

He couldn’t take the hint.

OKAY, so here’s the deal. I write mostly about movies. One good thing about no longer writing for the paper is that I’m free to ignore the big dumb Hollywood turkeys that don’t interest me. So don’t expect every blessed release to be written about here. Many films aren’t worth the effort. Besides, at my age it’s not the $8. It’s the two hours.

UPDATE: OCTOBER, 2014: Well, here’s an interesting twist. The Star wants me back as a freelance film reviewer!!! Apparently enough time has passed that they cannot be accused of firing me so that they can rehire me at a fraction of my original pay (I gather the federal government frowns upon that practice.) So from now on I will probably be reviewing a movie a week for the newspaper.