Rating: (2.5 stars)
“Western Stars,” a new documentary co-directed by and starring Bruce Springsteen, swaggers across the landscape like a cinematic epic, but it’s basically a concert flick, with some extras. And those extras are not the best things in it.
As fans already know, “Western Stars” is also the Bard of Asbury Park’s latest album, his 19th. Its sources are impressively complex, but they’re assembled into songs that are more calculated than inspired.
The lyrics are about the American West, the historical one and the mythic counterpart fashioned by such filmmakers as John Ford. (There are also a few glimpses backstage: One number is about an aging cowboy actor, and another about a stuntman.) Country and Tex-Mex musical timbres feature in the arrangements, which include banjo, pedal steel or accordion.
Springsteen draws from such middle-of-the-road composers as Jimmy Webb, who wrote a lot of hits for Glen Campbell, and occasionally the “sunshine pop” of the Beach Boys and similar L.A. soft-rock acts. A 30-piece orchestra helps emulate the sound of such chart-toppers as the Webb-penned “Wichita Lineman,” while also recalling the sweep of mid-20th-century movie scores.
After deciding not to perform “Western Stars” on tour, Springsteen arranged to play the album live for a select audience — and a camera crew — in the barn on his New Jersey estate. It’s a real barn, more than 100 years old, but big enough for 40 musicians and perhaps that many spectators.
The concert sequences should please most Springsteen fans. The singer looks lean, assured and about two decades younger than his actual 70 years. There are some nice moments with longtime lieutenant (and spouse) Patti Scialfa, who provides rhythm guitar and backup vocals (with help from four other singers). The assembled musicians are excellent, even if the orchestral arrangements are bland.
Only true believers will adjudge “Western Stars” to be one of the Boss’s great ones. Curious listeners who don’t know Springsteen’s music well — if such people exist — should start with one of his 1970s albums, or the recent Bruce-fueled movie, “Blinded by the Light.”
Yet what will really separate the faithful from casual viewers are not the songs but the in-between moments. Springsteen and co-director Thom Zimny introduce each song with the songwriter’s thoughts on life and love, delivered in voice-over. These musings might work as lyrics, but without a boost from melody they sound simplistic and self-evident.
Springsteen’s commentary plays atop old photos, home movies and new footage of desert scenes that mean to be iconic: wild horses, born to run, and the performer, walking or driving. At their best, these vignettes rise to the level of rock videos. More often, they look like TV ads for pickup trucks.
In the first of his philosophical asides, Springsteen explains that one of his new album’s themes is the conflict between individualism and community. Watching the musician’s solo turn through the Southwest outback, both fans and skeptics will probably hope he gets the old band back together real soon.
PG. At area theaters. Contains some mature thematic elements, alcohol and smoking images and brief strong language. 83 minutes.