NME at TIFF – ‘Western Stars’ review: inessential Springsteen concert movie that feels like a DVD extra with an attitude

Bruce Springsteen's filmic love letter to his latest album is sweet and spellbinding, if a little contrived at times.

Bruce Springsteen can get away with some musical clichés – because he invented them. Since the beginning of his decades-spanning career, his songs have tread a similar path: tales of open highways, factor jobs, automobiles, boardwalks and escape. 

And he knows this is the case. “This is my 19th album and I’m still writing about cars,” Springsteen quips over grainy, super eight footage of Mustangs careering down highways in Western Stars, a concert film accompaniment to the album of the same name.

The musical sequences were shot over several nights in a 19th century barn owned by Springsteen, a place he tells us has been home to weddings, parties and man bails of hay. But, with some fairy lights and cabaret seating, it’s transformed into an intimate concert for his friends. The set-up might feel stagey (there’s such a lack of crowd interaction you question whether Springsteen actually knows any of the people in attendance), but what he conjures up in musical spirit is often breathtaking.

That is what keeps it all together: old fashioned, heart swelling odes to heartbreak, performed with a 30-piece orchestra alongside the E Street Band, makes the live performances from the album of Western Stars spellbinding. 

That being said, the film’s interludes and explanations – one for every song – start to feel like the flogging of an already well-flogged horse. Nothing he adds here is all that profound, nor does it help to differentiate one song’s subtext from the next: its all glowing super eight footage of baby Bruce growing up, with a rehashed shot of stallions galloping across the desert. Sometimes it feels like a DVD extra that’s been woven into a concert movie that would be just as fine without them.

Diehard Springsteen fans will find something to love in Western Stars, a warm love letter to the legend’s stadium-filling pop-rock. For anyone on the fence, you might fall either way depending on how cynical you are to its familiar and well rehearsed charm techniques.