Wednesday 1 April 2020

On demand: "Western Stars"

As anyone who's had the pleasure and privilege of seeing him live could tell you, The Boss always gives you more. Western Stars is the promotional film for Bruce Springsteen's 2019 album of the same title, but it's had some thought and care expended on it, which is why it appeared (albeit briefly) on the festival circuit and in UK cinemas towards the end of last year. The album was founded on a concept Springsteen has apparently wrestled with for much of his adult life, namely that American life is a struggle between two competing impulses, the communal and the individualistic. He's not alone in this. In The Heart of Rock and Soul, his mid-Nineties overview of 20th century American music, the critic Dave Marsh set out his grand unifying theory of pop, which posited that the bulk of recordings could be divided (doubtless a touch neatly) into two camps: songs that say fuck you (composed to push somebody away), and songs that say love you (intended to bring others closer). Most musicians will have felt these urges at one time or another: going their own way to come up with a new clutch of songs, then having to nip back into the studio and record company offices to make and sell the product that puts food on their family's table. 

In his biography Born to Run, Springsteen himself writes illuminatingly about his realisation - as the carefree Seventies shaded into the workaholic Eighties, and personal responsibility loomed - that being creative wasn't enough to have the career (and life) he wanted. Instead, he writes, he had to learn how to become a businessman - to sell himself - or at the very least to surround himself with folk, like longtime producer-manager Jon Landau, who were instinctively better at business than he himself was. Politically, he couldn't have been less aligned with the Republican cause, but there were reasons why this Boss provided part of the soundtrack to the Reagan years - and why he's survived nearly five decades in the business, where less disciplined contemporaries went to the wall. The new doc is born of that finely honed instinct for what his fans expect to buy from him, a way of maximising revenue streams at a time when it's tough for even established musicians to get by. Filmed inserts frame Springsteen as Bruce the cowboy, hiking across the desert: if he is a cowboy, then he's one who's surely costed every last one of the bullets in his gun.

What's notable is how the movie reflects those loner/group, artist/businessman tensions. This is notionally a Springsteen solo project - no E Street posse - yet we join him in a cosy-looking converted barn in his backyard, wife Patti Scialfa hovering over his left shoulder on guitar, and a small coterie of musicians on hand to provide added sweep (the sound mixing is exemplary) and emotional heft. We're watching them up close, with director Thom Zimny honing in on much the same intimacy he fostered in 2018's Netflix exclusive Springsteen on Broadway: the lights are dimmed, the camera never steps further back than the second row, while intermittent voiceover permits us access to Bruce's innermost thoughts. It strikes me that Springsteen has spent the past quarter-century giving his fanbase much the same experience young Bruce gave Courteney Cox in the promo for "Dancing in the Dark": pulling onlookers up by the hand, and affording them at least the illusion of a private audience. (Consider the closing credits here, which play out over a shot of a cleaner sweeping up while Bruce and Patti sit at the venue's bar. Some would pay top dollar for such access.) 

All that said, Western Stars isn't quite the transcendent, multi-dimensional experience Springsteen on Broadway provided. The singer was on looser, wryer, more approachable form there, like a history lecturer winding down in the pub; here, he's back at the day job, serious-faced, braces beneath a leather jacket. That voiceover - which sounds very much like a formal transcription of Springsteen's between-songs repartee and rationale - has been recorded a little stiffly, and we're never allowed to drift too far away from the idea the singer is primarily here to sell rather than tell us something. Rattling through these tracks inside 80 minutes - barely longer than the album itself - Western Stars holds no particular depth, but it's a pretty good gig: a suite of crafted songs that, even if they don't speak directly to your experiences, possess that lived-in, worked-on tone and texture Springsteen recordings now routinely have. By the time he gets round to belting out a cover of Glen Campbell's "Rhinestone Cowboy" - a solo record about a lonesome figure that routinely brings people together in jubilant singalong - you'll feel you've got your money's worth, and he'll have got your money. Bruce the outlaw moseys on, with or without us.

Western Stars is available to rent through Amazon Prime.

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