January 19, 2023

Western Stars (2019)
Grade: 64/100

Director: Bruce Springsteen, Thom Zimny
Stars: Bruce Springsteen, Patti Schialfa

What it's about. Extraordinarily successful singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen turns his 19th studio album "Western Stars" into a concert movie, filmed in a large 125-year-old barn on Springsteen's ranch. The performers outnumber the in-person audience. They are Bruce, his wife Patti, a slew of unsung country-western sidemen, a small group of female background singers, and much of a symphony orchestra, especially the string section.

Bruce introduces each track with a spoken passage accompanied by documentary-style footage relevant to the story behind the song. He closes the concert with a title not found on the album, a cover of the 1975 Glen Campbell chart-topper "Rhinestone Cowboy."

How others will see it. Western Stars is a hit at imdb.com, where it commands a more-than-respectable user rating of 7.6 out of 10. The user reviews overflow with admiration for Springsteen and his endless talents as singer, songwriter, narrator, director, arranger, producer, and composer.

It is clear that the Bruce Springsteen fan will find much to enjoy. Some would rather see him on stage with the E Street Band instead, but they are in the minority.

How I felt about it. Bruce Springsteen has been a wealthy and famous rock star for two-thirds of his life, but he poses as a character in his songs, a bittersweet philosopher of love who is just making it through the day with little margin.

There was a time, especially in the mid-1980s, when a new Springsteen studio album would be the event of the year in rock radio. Today, three and a half years after its release, Western Stars still has less than 2K user votes at imdb.com, and his sure-fire hit from the album, "There Goes My Miracle", failed to penetrate the Billboard Hot 100.

But the album did make it to number two on the Billboard 200, not bad for a 70-year old. Still, it has to be said that the magic and the edge have gone. No more songs about mass-murderer Charles Starkweather, or brothers who died for nothing in the Vietnam War, or small towns rapidly on their way to becoming ghost towns. Now it's about the lonely guy who misses his ex-girlfriend, and the aging man who wears his cowboy boots to the neighborhood bar. The "Streets of Fire" have turned dusty from tumbleweeds.

The angst has turned to acceptance, appropriate for someone whose future is stoking the coals leftover from fires past. There was a time when folks would wonder why rock-and-roller Bruce, the man who put the plug back into MTV's "Unplugged", would record sound-alike country-tinged adult contemporary songs with a symphony orchestra. Now it seems appropriate, since the fire has cooled, and what remains is the need to perform. And an audience remains, aged along with Bruce but without his impressive crest of dark hair.

The old rock-and-roll spirit does stir at the end of the movie, when the forgotten cheesy country-pop hit "Rhinestone Cowboy" gets the Springtsteen treatment. It's certainly an improvement over Glen Campbell's version, and it's also more fun than any of the 13 tracks from the album.