Full disclosure here; I'm a massive Bruce Springsteen fan. I've seen him live ten times. The longer the better. For some a four hour rock fest with Bruce and the E-Street Band is their idea of hell. For others, it's a spiritual experience. I fall into the latter category.
Even still, there was a little apprehension ahead of going to see his new film Western Stars, which is currently on very limited release in Irish cinemas.
The album of the same title was released earlier in the year, receiving the attention and fanfare typical of an album release in 2019. Impressive for a now 70-year-old, 35 years past his popular prime, but a drop in the ocean in the wider world. It's an introspective, acoustic album. It's full of character based, story-heavy songs akin to Springsteen's work on albums such as Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad. In many ways, this is Springsteen at his most comfortable in 2019. Examining the human spirit, exploring the meaning of love and the many ways in which the demons inside of us push that love away.
The record is brilliant, but it's not exactly a banger. The stories of love and depression and bad decisions and redemption are wonderful but they're draining, and as anyone who's ever listened to a Bruce interview will know, when these stories live outside of the songs, they tend to sound like pure bullshit.
And that was the worry about this film. How can what is essentially a live performance of the album interspersed with voice-overs from Bruce explaining each song, and with some beautifully shot cuts of his driving around the American desert not be brimmed with that bullshit?
And the truth is, it is. It is overflowing with it. You don't have a clue what he's talking about for the first couple of minutes. He's describing the concept of the album and talking about the filming in the old barn on his property, and I'm thinking, 'why am I here?'
Then we jump into the first song, a live performance of the brilliant Hitch Hikin', and you think, 'OK, it's Bruce live.' If there's nothing else, you know that's going to be good. He's there with his wife Patti on guitar, a band, and an entire orchestra string section. There's energy and soul and heart that sucks you in, even if you don't know the songs. You'll get lost in the performance. This is what makes him The Boss. This is what comes easy for Springsteen, even at 70. This is what captivates us for over three hours in the rain, and leaves us still wanting more. We can just ignore the other stuff in between.
But 90 minutes later, you're not ignoring the other stuff anymore. How has he done it? How am I sitting here crying? How has he sucked me in?
The music gives life to the stories. It brings you to that spiritual place that you weren't in entering the cinema. Suddenly listening to a 70-year-old man talk about love and loss and depression isn't bullshit anymore. It's your entire existence.
There's a truly beautiful moment at the end of the film before the final song (a genius inclusion of a Rhinestone Cowboy cover to lift the mood and give us a couple of minutes to wipe our eyes). All it is is an unexpected twist on a shot revisited throughout the film. That's all it needed. He'd sucked us in.
Afterwards, it's hard not to think of it as a beautiful film. In reality, it's not much more than a live performance of an album, but it somehow conveys so much more.
In a recorded Q and A shown after the movie, Springsteen's explained what he wanted people to get out of the film.
"It's the kind of picture that you go to with your girl, and you watch, and maybe towards the end, you might start holding hands."
Even at 70, even in 2019, there's not many who can evoke emotions like Bruce Springsteen.Western Stars is no different. I don't know why I ever doubted him.