Bruce Springsteen is a philosopher masquerading as a rock star. This was evident from the beginning, when we saw that the cars in his lyrics were more than mere modes of transport; they were a metaphor for freedom and the possibilities promised by the American dream. Then, as his live performances gained legendary stature, Springsteen’s concerts morphed from chock-a-block music marathons to events featuring homily-like interludes wherein Springsteen delivered the gospel according to Bruce.
The Boss has continued to search for new ways to integrate philosophy with music. In 2018, he hit upon the idea of a one-man Broadway show. Called Springsteen on Broadway, the sold out, oft-extended run was an autobiographical monologue punctuated by solo acoustic song performances. The format allowed Springsteen’s thoughtful reflections and familiar music to reinforce and deepen each other. (If you’re a Springsteen fan and didn’t see the show, you can find an excellent video of it on Netflix.) Springsteen on Broadway proved, if there was any doubt, that Springsteen is at least as compelling a storyteller in prose as he is with lyrics.
For Western Stars, the artist again sought a new way to combine spoken observations with music. This time he dove into an entirely new medium, co-producing a film. Making a movie allowed Springsteen to break free of the optical strictures inherent in a concert hall or Broadway stage.
As he has with previous solo albums, Springsteen created a character—in this case an unnamed rhinestone cowboy, if you will, who has far more life behind him than ahead. The character’s milieu is the great American West, which here serves as another metaphor for freedom. Yet the character’s smallness compared to his surroundings emphasizes the other half of Springsteen’s theme: freedom inevitably comes face to face with the love we all need, and that love only comes through stability and family.
The soundtrack tells the character’s story in more detail, and Springsteen matches the movie’s visual grandeur with large-scale arrangements that feature a 30-piece orchestra. The surprising thing is that the visuals and the songs never accompany each other. Instead, the visuals feature and are narrated by Springsteen, who relates each song’s lyrics to both the character and his own life. These thoughts serve as both philosophical musings and introductions to a live performance of the song.
Of the film’s three elements—visuals, narration and performance—the last two are by far the most compelling. This is Springsteen’s first foray into film, and in truth the images don’t add a lot. Nonetheless, the film is well worth seeing because it’s the only way to hear Bruce’s graceful and eloquent observations on confronting life’s contradictions and temporal limits.