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Bruce Springsteen in Western Stars

The universe wanted me to meet Bruce Springsteen this year. 

That sounds crazy, I know. But there were three separate opportunities for me to meet and potentially speak with The Boss in 2019 – which shouldn’t happen because his talents keep him in the “music industry” field, and not in the corners of entertainment journalism occupied by film geeks.

Only, this year, Bruce Springsteen side-stepped genre boundaries. Twice. Earlier this year, his music served as the emotional centerpiece for Gurinder Chadha’s delightful coming-of-age story Blinded By the Light (and that movie’s New Jersey premiere was my first unfulfilled invitation to potentially meet Bruce). Next, Springsteen co-directed a compelling documentary titled Western Stars, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival… days after I was scheduled to leave this year’s fest.

The third time, however? That one finally was the charm.

Earlier this week, Warner Bros. invited a small group of movie journalists (and die-hard Springsteen fans) to Northern New Jersey for an intimate conversation with The Boss about Western Stars, a combination concert documentary and personal diary that Bruce co-directs with Thom Zimny.

Nothing about the day was normal – a sentiment shared between myself and the four other giddy film journalists who regularly interview Hollywood celebrities but never dreamed of holding court with The Boss. The fact that the intimate interview was taking place in Springsteen’s private home studio, where he’s been recording tracks since 2006-07, made an already unusual day feel downright surreal.

Any tension or apprehension was immediately exorcized the moment Bruce Springsteen entered the room – with a broken-in denim jacket over his loose-fitting white t-shirt – and graciously declared “Free bagels!” as he pointed to a table of breakfast options his staff had set up.

Talk about a dream. Try to make it real.

As we settled into our conversation, Springsteen explained the genesis behind Western Stars, clarifying:

Usually we make a record and we tour. I'm either on the radio for 24 hours on my own station on Sirius, or I'm usually not on it all any more. So you can't depend on radio or the usual outlets for promotion. And so I go, ‘Well gee, if I've just put the record out, it’s going to come out, people want to buy it, [then] it's going to disappear. So how do I give the record a longer life?’ … And so I said, ‘I'll make a film, with me playing the record, start to finish, and that'll be my tour.’

That, in a nutshell, is what Western Stars delivers. It’s Springsteen and his wife, Patti Scialfa, performing the 13 tracks off the new album of the same name with a spectacular symphony accompaniment. It’s the next best thing to seeing Bruce live – a front-row seat to a captivating performance of soulful new material that showcases the artist’s storytelling abilities through song.

Don’t look for the E Street band members in the film, or on the album. Western Stars is a departure from the traditional for The Boss, and when I asked why, he explained:

Well, it just wasn't really E Street Band music. And when people see the band there, I think they're expecting a certain type of presentation and a certain type of music. So, it's better when I kind of separate by genre a little bit.

Instead of the band, Western Stars delivers insightful, often philosophical, ruminations from Bruce Springsteen about his music, his songwriting process, lessons from his decades of life experiences, and sentimental home videos pulled from his personal archives. Paired with some original footage shot at Joshua Tree and beyond, that makes up the rest of Western Stars and creates a narrative bridge between the songs that shines a light back on Bruce, as an artist.

Some of the old footage used in the movie ended up being new to Springsteen after all of these years.

We took the videos when we were very young, and when the kids were young, but we're like everybody else. You shoot [those movies], you throw them in a box, and you don't look at them for 35 years. So, Thom Zimny cataloged all my home video footage and gave it to me for Christmas one year. So he knew what was in all of it. I didn't know it was in any of it! But he knew what was in all of it. And one day I came in and he had pulled out some of this footage and I said, ‘Oh man, I remember that!’ We were in Yosemite, Patti and I were playing with the camera all the time. And it was just a little tiny video camera that we brought, but it ended up actually being an important scene in the picture.

A little moment that contributes to a larger experience. That sums up the message of Western Stars, which largely follows the fictional character of a fading Hollywood film star as he reflects on his accomplishments, and his regrets. Songs on the album like “The Wayferer,” “Drive Fast” and the title track tells interludes about show business, touring, and the connections we make through entertainment.

Bruce Springsteen has been pulling inspirations from pop culture, and especially cinema, for decades. So the fact that he’d try his hand at co-directing – and trading trade secrets with film journalists – shouldn’t surprise his closest fans. He recounted to us:

I'd say since I was in my late twenties, I was influenced all by pop radio of the ‘50s and ‘60s. And then after that, I started to look for other outside sources as a template for how to do my job. And so I started to read, but I [also] went to films. I really started to watch a lot of films. I'd say, yeah, 27, 28, Darkness on the Edge of Town and forward, I became a bit of a film buff. I’d look for other artists, and the way that they were conceptualizing their work.

He opened up about the Western director John Ford, who seemed to be exploring similar themes in all of his pictures, from Stagecoach and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon to his seminal film, The Searchers. The kinship Springsteen found in filmmakers extended through the decades, as he rattled off the works of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese – specifically Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and The Irishman – as films released this year that he really adored.

Now his own film will be in theaters alongside the latest features by Tarantino and Scorsese, a point that definitely wasn’t lost on this New Jersey legend. But after decades of dominating the music charts, he was ready for a transition to a new medium, one that he hopes extends the reach and impact of Western Stars while also reflecting the lessons of the songs and the lyrics. Springsteen summarizes:

The definition of what freedom is alters as you grow older. And so the film is sort of about the way that that word changes as time passes by. But it's also about the price you pay if you don't grow or change as that time passes by. If you don't lay down your old baggage and sort through it and see where you've made your mistakes. … The film is fundamentally about a transition that everyone has to make. And it's about how you make that transition. The price you pay if you don't make it. The rewards you get, if when you do. And that's what the film became about as we worked on it.

See for yourself starting this weekend. Western Stars open up in theaters on Friday, October 25, and is a must-see for Bruce Springsteen fanatics, and those of you who appreciate seeing an iconic artist at the top of his game.

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