Western Stars: AMC Empire 25 3 November 2019

peg suggested seeing Western Stars and I was all in because I am a big Bruce Springsteen fan and I thought this should be a movie seen on a big screen with big sound.

I did not read anything about it beforehand, so all I knew was that it was a kind of concert film with Bruce performing his new album live. He is not going to tour with this album, so this is the only opportunity to hear it live. They performed the entire album in order (with cuts to stories in-between) and a surprise cover at the end that fit the theme. The album is the story of a stunt man who worked in Westerns whose time has passed. They do not make Westerns anymore and he is an old man wandering around Hollywood and Los Angeles.

When they got to the concert sections, I was pleased to see that old workhorse – a 58 – being used for his vocal mic. No expensive studio mic. The mix was by Bob Clearmountain, so you get the usual Bruce sound that you would hear on any of his albums.

The concert takes place in what was the hayloft in the barn that is on his horse farm. They set up a stage and a bar and invited a bunch of close friends. The hayloft has beautiful cathedral ceiling and, of course, all that wood, which makes it a glorious place for a concert. The band is new and it is strange to see him without the E Street Band. Patti Scialfa sings back-up vocals on some songs that she does not sing back-up on the album. Adding her voice to “Stones” (a song about lying) adds a level to it that is very intimate and makes you feel like they are allowing you to peek inside a part of their life. There is a small orchestra accompanying most of the songs. The band and orchestra are: Maurycy Banaszek (viola); Kevin Buell (guitar); Ben Butler (banjo, electric guitar); Barry Danielian (trumpet); Monica Davis (violin); Rachel Drehmann (French horn); Will Frampton (viola); Charlie Giordano (accordion, organ, piano); Maggie Gould (violin); Joyce Hamann (violin); Celia Hatton (viola); Henry Hey (keyboards); Andrew Janss (cello); Elizabeth Lim-Dutton (violin); Lisa Lowell (background vocals); Laura Lutze (violin); Rob Mathes (arranger, musical director, keyboards, piano); Joanna Maurer (concertmaster, violin); Maureen McDermott (cello); Marc Muller (banjo, acoustic guitar); Gunnar Olsen (drums); Annaliesa Place (violin); Curt Ramm (trumpet); Kaveh Rastegar (bass); Zohar Schondorf (French horn); Patti Scialfa (vocal arrangement, background vocals, acoustic guitar); Bruce Springsteen (vocals, acoustic guitar); Alan Stepansky (cello); Emma Sutton (violin); Vaneese Thomas (background vocals); Soozie Tyrell (background vocals); Surrenity Xyz (background vocals); and Robin Zeh (violin).

Now, I thought his horse farm was in New Jersey. And I was right. But all the scenes of Bruce walking in the Southwest, the wild horses running around, the cactus – it had me confused. Did he buy a ranch in the Southwest also? No. They filmed those scenes at Joshua Tree National Park. But this is never explained in the film, so the scenes where Bruce is driving the El Camino and he is wearing a cowboy hat and boots, and a bunch of Southwestern jewelry (silver and turquoise) and then they cut to the hayloft or the stables underneath makes you think that their horse farm is in the Southwest. This is Bruce’s directorial debut (along with Thom Zimny) and I thought that was a strange choice – to not explain that there were two different locations. Not to mention that the Jersey boy looked so out of place walking in the desert dressed like a cowboy.

After the film there was a “making of” film and it confirmed a lot of things I was thinking while watching the original film. It is a continuation of his play and book – more of his telling stories about his life. In particular, his life with Patti and the film is a love letter to his wife in many ways. It is not a continuation of Nebraska, which is what I imagined before I watched the film and that became immediately evident once we were into the film. Nebraska was darker but also was a solo effort, while Western Stars is (and feels like) very much a group effort. The music is cinematic – it makes you think of Spaghetti Westerns or Aaron Copeland and the wide expanse of the West. It is also Bruce paying homage to California symphonic pop, which very much fits in with his past music. One song he called his Jimmy Webb song and it made me think of Webb and California symphonic pop as soon as he started playing it.

Bruce is a storyteller who speaks in song lyrics. He is a poet who speaks in prose. I love listening to his songs and it is always a grand experience to hear them live – filmed or in person.

By Carene Lydia Lopez