Warner Bros. will release the acclaimed concert film Oct. 25 in theaters nationwide.
Bruce Springsteen wowed the crowd Thursday at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival during the world premiere screening of Western Stars — the new concert film inspired by his recently released and critically acclaimed album of the same title — and throughout the post-screening Q&A at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall hosted by Warner Bros. chairman Toby Emmerich.
Co-directed Springsteen and Thom Zimny, Western Stars — which Warner Bros. will release Oct. 25 in theaters nationwide — connects to the album as equal parts companion piece and an imaginative expansion. Touching on themes of love and loss, loneliness and family, immediate experiences and the inexorable passage of time, it vividly evokes the American West — both the romanticized myth and the hardscrabble reality — while weaving archival footage and Springsteen’s personal narration with song to tell the story of Western Stars.
According to Joe Utichi of the Deadline website, Springsteen told the Roy Thomson Hall audience that the Western Stars album “was just a collection of new songs that I had that pieced together in a certain way and which had a certain ambiance to them that evoked the western part of the country and a certain style of songwriting — southern California in the ’70s — so I was interesting in writing in that vein. And there was an emotional arc that I was trying to communicate, [which is] what the film brings out even more than the record even did. When we added the spoken pieces in between the music, that really brought out what the album was about much more to the fore.”
Here is a sampling of the rave reviews Western Stars received at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Owen Lieberman of Variety: “There’s a moment in Western Stars, the rapturous new Bruce Springsteen concert film that’s also a meditation on all things Bruce, when Springsteen lifts you up and carries you off in that way that only he can do. Most of the movie was shot in the 140-year-old cavernous dark barn that sits on Springsteen’s property in Colts Neck, New Jersey. Over several nights, he performed all 13 tracks off his latest studio album, Western Stars (released this past June), in front of a small private audience. The songs, composed in a glowing style of ’70s Southern California country pop, are what you might call happy portraits of heartbreak, and one of them, ‘There Goes My Miracle,’ soars to a gorgeous cresting height of confessional melancholy.
“It’s Bruce singing about a love — a miracle — that was lost (“There goes my miracle, walking away, walking away…”), and what’s implicit is that the singer knows it was his fault that the miracle is walking; it’s what he did, or failed to do. The music is transcendent; the rise and fall of the melody expresses the faith and despair that love can bring. And Bruce, standing there in the burnished glow of his barn, croons it with an open-hearted fragility that’s even more moving than it was on the studio version. The yearn in his voice, the crinkle of his eye, tells you: He knows this loss.”
Steve Pond of The Wrap: “The film begins with an aerial shot of a wide-open desert plain, with wild horses running free. There’s an old barn, a car, a weathered hand sporting turquoise jewelry grasping a steering wheel, a silhouette of a man in a cowboy hat.
“That’s not the way you would normally think of Bruce Springsteen introducing himself — but Western Stars… is not a normal Bruce Springsteen film. Borrowing from the imagery of his recent album of the same name, it’s both an intimate concert film and a series of musings on solitude and community in song and story.”
Michael Rechtshaffen of The Hollywood Reporter: “Where many recording artists of a certain age and stage might be considering a Vegas residency or a duets album, Bruce Springsteen continues to test himself creatively and artistically. Having already made fresh forays into print (his 2016 autobiography Born to Run) and stage (Springsteen on Broadway), he closes out the decade making his behind-the-camera feature-length debut with frequent collaborator Thom Zimny (The Promise: The Making of Darkness at the Edge of Town), co-directing Western Stars, a companion piece to his studio album of the same name.
“Proving to be far more than a standard-issue bonus concert DVD or making-of documentary, the film, which had its world premiere at TIFF, is a gorgeous tone poem that both deepens and personalizes the audio recording, creating a satisfying emotional arc that isn’t as apparent in the collection of 13 fully-orchestrated country-tinged songs released in June…
“Certainly it isn’t the first time the Jersey native has touched upon the American West, what with ‘Thunder Road’ and its opening line, ‘The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves,’ handily conjuring up images of classic John Ford. But this collection of songs with a unifying ambience, specifically late ‘70s Southern California, easily lends itself to the tapestry of iconic imagery — wild horses running free, a pickup truck rambling down a dusty road, golden sunsets — while the writer, either in voiceover or addressing the camera, weighs in on the constant push and pull presented by road and homestead. ‘This is my 19th album and I’m still writing about cars,’ concedes Springsteen. ‘The people in them, anyway.’”
Kate Erbland of IndieWire: “[Springsteen] makes no bones about his affection for creating characters to craft songs both about and around, and Western Stars includes a variety of such colorful and compelling personas. From the fading Western star (in the eponymous song, Springsteen jokes about his character being shot by John Wayne while on the job) to a banged-up stuntman and even a kid who runs away from a heartbreak by taking a job breaking horses, Western Stars is filled with Springsteen stand-ins who allow him to further explore his themes.”
David Fear of Rolling Stone: “As a performance film, Western Stars is a pitch-perfect example of why this music needed to be played and heard live. On record, you can feel Springsteen working his way through some uncharacteristic styles: Jimmy Webb-style C&W lite, Brian Wilson’s baroque pop, Everly Brothers-like crooning, musical arrangements that wouldn’t be out of place on an old Harry Nilsson joint (listen to that gossamer shuffle that opens up ‘Hello Sunshine’ and tell me you don’t expect the first line to be ‘Everybody’s talkin’ at me…’). Seeing him take on those songs on a stage, however, and you get the sense he owns all of it now — he’s turned all of these influences into a seamless Springsteen sound…
“[W]hat you see in the live versions is the sum of these parts as one cohesive whole. He’s a singer in sync with the musical community surrounding him, a concept as thematically on point with the album as possible… Those moments share screen time with free-form scenes of Bruce wandering alone through the California desert near Joshua Tree, offering comments on both the songs and his own struggle to reconcile his stoic loner and loving husband/father sides.”
Mike Ryan of Uproxx.com: “Springsteen didn’t tour to promote his album Western Stars (released back in June), instead opting to make a movie that’s part concert film and part meditation set to landscapes from the American Southwest. The theme of the album (the ‘character’ Springsteen created) is about an aging star of old Western movies who, as Springsteen puts it, still visits his old watering holes, but is now the oldest patron in the bar…
“As Western Stars moves on, it becomes less about a lonely, regretful drifter (who also happens to be Bruce Springsteen), and more about a human being who found redemption through his wife and family. Patti Scialfa and their children become more and more of a focal point in Bruce’s words, music, and eventual redemption. The end credits show Bruce and Patti; the show is over, but they’re still there, sitting at the bar in that old barn, sharing some laughs.
“Of course, Bruce Springsteen isn’t going to leave the stage without an encore. And what a curveball we get: Springsteen’s rollicking, show-stopping cover of Glen Campbell’s ‘Rhinestone Cowboy.’ (Technically Campbell’s version is also a cover, but whatever.) Bruce pulsates his way through the song, every word commanding interpretation after what we all just watched: a song about perseverance and redemption, ending in this last triumph.”