springsteen at the movies: a heroic encore for “western stars”

Bruce Springsteen performing in “Western Stars.” Photo by Rob DeMartin.

“Come on in,” beckons the narrative voice of Bruce Springsteen at the onset his new “Western Stars” concert film. “We’re about to start our tale of a man standing by the roadside.”

With that, we are ushered into a massive, 100-year old barn on Springsteen’s New Jersey property – a venue that has been transformed into a makeshift concert venue big enough to accommodate a 30-piece orchestra, as well as an impromptu movie set. The occasion is the only live performance of his “Western Stars” album, a summer masterpiece that wraps songs of immense personal complexity and restlessness in the deceptively warm orchestral embrace of late ‘60s Americana.

Springsteen co-directed the 83-minute film with Thom Zimney. It begins a limited nationwide release, which includes a Lexington run, on March 25 (Friday).

If “Western Stars” did nothing but present the 13 songs from the album of the same name in a performance setting, it would be worth viewing, even though the music adheres far more exactly to the record’s string-savvy arrangements than his E Street Band shows do to his more adaptable rock ‘n’ roll repertoire.  Then again, “Western Stars” isn’t a rock album. It’s doesn’t even parallel Springsteen’s most potent non-rock work from the past, 1982’s “Nebraska.” That record was a stark, blackened journey into the abyss – and a willful one, at that. “Western Stars” is about surviving that kind of tumble and the difficulties in applying the lessons learned to a more hopeful life.

What makes these live performances so strong, curiously, are the non-musical moments that come between the songs. These are vignettes, many shot in the expansive outdoors of Joshua Tree, California, that enlighten the unsettled nature of the music.

The paradox this contrast sets up is often astonishing. We revel in the majesty of the strings and a richly animated vocal performance from Springsteen on the most riveting composition from the “Western Stars” album, “There Goes My Miracle,” a work that outlines the graciousness of love and the regret stirred when it helplessly slips away. Springsteen extolls love’s virtues in the narrative prelude to the song, but warns that one has to “work for its blessings.” The music then hammers the point home, with devastating efficiency, through two simple words tacked onto the title: “… walking away.”

“Western Stars” is, ultimately, an affirmation, albeit a cautious one. We can luxuriate in the sweetness of its lyricism and orchestral flair, but like so many great Springsteen works, what lurks under the surface gives the music its very humanity.

“Are we moving forward?” he asks in one of the spoken interludes early in the film. “Or are we just moving?” “Western Stars” is unquestionably an artistic step forward for Springsteen. But its greatest strength, even when providing such a revealing performance portrait of his new songs, comes from capturing the very human hesitancy, unrest and conflict that makes the film so engrossing and Springsteen’s music so unavoidably relatable.

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