Bruce Springsteen has had a hell of a few years as of late. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given that he’s had a hell of a last few decades, becoming one of the most celebrated and cherished entertainers in popular music history. Still, the release of his autobiography, followed by his award winning show on Broadway that helped contextualize and deconstruct some of the prevailing themes of his work has proven to be one of the great late-career moves of the day. Add in his latest project, a sun-drenched Western themed record called Western Stars, and you’ve got a trinity of Boss things to trumpet.
As an album, Springsteen’s latest borrows liberally from Jimmy Webb, the iconic producer who helped solidify a sweeping, cinematic form of country pop that fused lush strings, warm harmonies and songs whose narratives were both evocative and inviting. Just as early Bruce borrowed from another iconic producer, Phil Spector, this fascination with the scope of Webb-style songs has resulted in a different kind of mythmaking for Springsteen, one that draws from a dusty Californian landscape rather than the Spartan roads of North Jersey.
Along with documentarian Thom Zimny editor of The Wire, director numerous Bruce docs, Springsteen has helped craft this film to document not only a performance of songs but, like with the Broadway gig, to provide editorial and thematic responses to the tune, situating them within grander contexts and establishing their place within his larger body of work. The performances themselves are grand, taking place with Bruce’s barn, a cathedral-like place crammed with a small orchestra and country band. The performances are lifted even further from the album’s recording, played live the sweep is all the more grand, the swing all the more palpable.
Following the film’s world premiere at TIFF, Springsteen sat down for a conversation for the audience. He discussed the project, the recording, how it all came together and some of the cinematic and musical references they both brought to bear for this remarkable film.
The following is an edited version of that conversation, collecting the highlights.
Connecting the book, the show, and the movie
The book came for me organically, and then from the book the play came. It’s the tying of philosophical threads that I’ve been working on my whole life. Like I say at the beginning of Western Stars there are two sides to the American character; there’s the solitary side and the side that yearns for connection and community. That’s a lifetime trip for me, trying to figure that out how to reconcile those two things. The book, the play, and Western Stars are all sort of summing this up.
Playing a cowboy character
I grew up in the ’50s and the Western was king. I want my music to be more than just local, so when I was writing, I thought about how to draw off of all different parts of the country. With Darkness on the Edge of Town I started to set songs in Utah and in the Southwest somewhere. For this film we shot mini movies out in the Southwest. It continues to be a mythical landscape that is someplace where it’s easy to set your narrative. It’s a landscape that as Americans we carry inside of us. The difficulty of making the most basic human connections, the struggle for community and love; it all sort of lays itself out there when you set your narratives in that part of the country.
Springsteen’s first John Ford film
The first one would have been The Grapes of Wrath, so it wasn’t a western. There was The Searchers, and that was a huge influence on me still is to this day. I love those pictures deeply and I found a way to sort of map out a work life by watching how those films were made. I decided that I wanted to write continuously about a theme, I want to write progressively as I get older, to bring into my stories aging characters. Those films were a great blueprint.
The decision to make this film
I decided I wasn’t going to tour, so thought maybe we’ll shoot the album. We shot a performance and then thought, well, maybe we’ll do some interviews and put that in and that’ll be the picture. We’d do some interviews where people say what a nice guy I am, and it’s easy to work for me and what an honour it is… [laughs]. I thought I needed to help people draw into the songs, to have the opportunity to sort of explain them. So I wrote the script and Tom and I started to collaborate on little sections of that, in between the music.
On producer Jon Landau
Jon has just influenced my life with everything, really, whether it’s records or films or the way I live my life. He was a film critic after he was a music critic, so when I started to get into films he was a very good resource to go to. We’ve had a lifelong love affair that continues to this day, so it’s very lucky.
Songs about nostalgia and mortality
I’ve lost some of my closest friends. I miss a lot of the people that aren’t here now and can’t share our defeats and our victories. It registers and finds its way into your work, and we carry on.
The band’s getting back together! I want to make a really good rock band record with the E Street Band.