Bruce Springsteen in Western Stars, which opened in theatres on October 25. The film evolved from a straightforward documentary into a sweeping montage and introspective portrait | Rob DeMartin/Warner Bros
Bruce Springsteen in Western Stars, which opened in theatres on October 25. The film evolved from a straightforward documentary into a sweeping montage and introspective portrait | Rob DeMartin/Warner Bros

Colts Neck, New Jersey — “Ahh, it’s early!” Shortly after 9.30 on a warm autumn morning, Bruce Springsteen walks into the cozy kitchen-sitting area of Thrill Hill, the recording studio nestled into a corner of his Monmouth County farm. “For the first interview of my 70s, it’s early!”

A few days after turning 70, Springsteen looks tan and fit as he settles into a leather slingback chair, stretches his arms and runs his hands through brush-cut hair the color of steel shavings. This is the same room where Western Stars, a movie based on his recent album of the same name, was in post-production over the summer, with co-director Thom Zimny editing at a nearby dining table as he listened to Springsteen working on the score in the next room. The movie had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September; it opened in theatres on October 25.

Springsteen makes his feature directing debut with Western Stars, sharing a credit with Zimny and making official a fact that has been obvious to anyone who’s ever listened closely to his music: Bruce Springsteen — singer, songwriter, rock star, consummate showman, American icon — has always been a filmmaker. 

Whether in the form of widescreen, highly pitched epics or low-budget slices of daily life, Springsteen’s records have been less aural than immersive, unspooling with cinematic scope, drive and pictorial detail. Phil Spector might have built a wall of sound, but Springsteen used sound to build worlds.

Over the course of a nearly 50-year career, both as a solo performer and with the E Street Band, Bruce Springsteen’s music has become its own extended cinematic universe, populated by recurring characters, environments and themes

He greets the suggestion that he’s an auteur with one of his frequent self-effacing chuckles. But Springsteen admits that a cinematic point of view came naturally to him. “Movies have always meant a lot to me,” he says in his familiar rasp. ‘It’s probably just a part of being a child of the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s, when there was so much great filmmaking.”

He grew up in a blue-collar, Irish-Italian family at a time when the local bijou was still a vital community hub. “The Strand Theatre in Freehold, New Jersey, was dead in the centre of town,” he recalls. “It was your classic old, small-town movie theatre. Its main attraction was, ‘Come on in, it’s cool inside’.”

He laughs again.

“It didn’t matter what they were playing, it was air-conditioned. So, on all those dead, small-town summer days, when it would get up into the 90s in Freehold, you’d drift in no matter what was playing, and see what was on the screen.”

Springsteen’s first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, introduced him in 1973 as an instinctively visual, character-driven storyteller. The title of his second album that year, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle was inspired by a 1959 movie starring the icon of postwar American Westerns, Audie Murphy. The songs evoked everything from West Side Story to the edgy, urban style of young Martin Scorsese.

Bruce Springsteen at his home in Monmouth County, New Jersey | Michael S. Williamson/Washington Post
Bruce Springsteen at his home in Monmouth County, New Jersey | Michael S. Williamson/Washington Post

But it was 1975’s Born to Run that brought Springsteen’s sensibility into its fullest expression. Structured as a day in the life of young people trying to escape their own dead, small-town summer days, the record plays like a movie of the mind’s eye, with propulsive movement, linear narrative and third-act catharsis.

Zimny, who has directed several Springsteen music videos and documentaries, and recently won an Emmy for Springsteen on Broadway, recalled listening to Born to Run long before the two worked together, and being particularly affected by the album’s most ambitious track: the street opera Jungleland, with its fugitive leading man, barefoot love interest and kids flashing guitars “just like switchblades.” The song “opened up a world of possibility for me,” he says, “because it just dealt in imagery. Jungleland was the first time I heard a sax solo feel like a Technicolor film.”

If Born to Run evoked the chrome, concrete and escapist fantasies of the movies Springsteen watched at the Strand, the lexicon of Darkness on the Edge of Town was grainier and less mannered, but still harked back to the imaginary worlds of his youth.

“When I wrote Born to Run and Darkness, I saw them as B-pictures,” Springsteen says. “If they worked really well, they were good ones, and the songs I was unhappy with were bad ones.”

He wanted both records “to have the breadth of cinema”, he says, “while at the same time remaining very, very personal for me. Those were the parameters of what I was imagining at that particular moment. I was sort of using the contours and the shape of films and movies, while at the same time trying to find myself in my work. But the film-ness of my songs was never far from my mind.” And it was a self-mythologising vernacular that his audience immediately understood.

“It was just how you processed everything,” he continues. “As a teenager, you were looking for a dramatic life. Where is my dramatic life? As if things weren’t dramatic enough. And you were writing your own script in your head as you walked down the street. It was all just part of living at that time.”

Jon Landau co-produced Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town (as well as several subsequent records) and would talk with Springsteen for hours about music, novels and movies, a conversation that still hasn’t ended (Landau has been Springsteen’s manager for 41 years). While they were making Darkness, he remembers, Springsteen told him about a movie he had seen on TV, without catching the title. “He started to describe the film to me, and I said, ‘Oh, Bruce, that was The Grapes of Wrath.” He said, ‘That’s about the greatest thing I’ve [ever] seen’. I said, ‘What did you like about it?’ And he said, ‘Everything. The look, the intensity, the focus, the artistry, everything’. And I said, ‘Well, you know, John Ford directed that’. And he said, ‘Oh, I’ve heard of him’.”

That was the point, Landau says, when Springsteen “started looking at film in a whole different way. He started to make contact with great American cinema and it just grew and grew and grew.” Eventually, Springsteen formed his own canon of go-to movies, each of which has had an imprint on his records — Ford’s ambivalent Western epic The Searchers, noir classics The Night of the Hunter and Out of the Past, Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, The Godfather. All share Springsteen’s love for poetic imagery, volatile emotion and deep misgivings about the American myth.

The Grapes of Wrath would become the chief influence on Springsteen’s 1995 record The Ghost of Tom Joad, just as the desolate acoustic mood of Nebraska had been inspired by The Night of the Hunter, Terrence Malick’s Badlands and the 1980s’ crime drama True Confessions, with Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall. “There was something about the stillness of it that affected the way that I wrote at the time,” Springsteen says. “The violence underneath.”

Nearly every Springsteen record has its own musical signature, but also its own production and lighting design, character arcs and shot structure: the high-kicking production numbers of Rosalita and Out in the Street. The gleaming close-ups and jump-cut rhythms of Born to Run. The East of Eden Oedipal rage of Adam Raised a Cain. The erotic-thriller charge of Candy’s Room and I’m On Fire. The lurid neon nightscape of Tunnel of Love. The ageing actors and magic-hour tonal values of Western Stars. Over the course of a nearly 50-year career, both as a solo performer and with the E Street Band, Springsteen’s music has become its own extended cinematic universe, populated by recurring characters, environments and themes: Broken heroes, rattrap towns, dashed ideals and dogged faith in redemption. And, always, the beckoning highway.

Bruce Springsteen recorded a concert for the movie Western Stars with his wife, Patti Scialfa, at their 100-year-old barn in New Jersey | Michael S Williamson/Washington Post
Bruce Springsteen recorded a concert for the movie Western Stars with his wife, Patti Scialfa, at their 100-year-old barn in New Jersey | Michael S Williamson/Washington Post

Along with the characters he invented, Springsteen has shaped his persona to emulate musical heroes such as Elvis Presley and Woody Guthrie, as well as his favourite actors. On the cover of Darkness on the Edge of Town he could be Robert De Niro playing Travis Bickle, while wearing Marlon Brando’s T-shirt under James Dean’s leather jacket. Springsteen says he was “tremendously” influenced by actors as he sought to forge his identity as a performer, from Dean and Brando to Al Pacino and De Niro.

“Italian American actors from the 1970s had a huge impact on me,” he says. “If you came and saw us onstage in the ’70s, you saw a very theatrical performance. I was kind of channelling all of those actors from that time, and bringing them onstage with me.” Even the piratical high jinks with Miami Steve/ Steve Van Zandt and the playful showdowns with saxophonist Clarence Clemons felt like they sprang directly from the screen: Sharks-vs-Jets by way of the Bowery Boys.

It was also at that time — the first crest of his eventual superstardom — that Springsteen landed on the covers of both Time and Newsweek, prompting the inevitable calls from Hollywood. He met with Milos Forman, who considered him for Hair. And he laughs at a classic “Kid, I like your moxie!” moment with King of the Gypsies producer Dino De Laurentiis. “I was like, 25, and he was behind a big desk smoking a big cigar. It was just that entire scene, played out hilariously.”

Eric Roberts eventually got that part. But Springsteen has no regrets. “I didn’t have the confidence at the time,” he says. “I thought, I don’t really deserve to be working in this arena right now, because I hadn’t done the homework. I hadn’t prepared myself. Whereas in music, I’d prepared myself thoroughly.”

In a rock ‘n’ roll world that prizes authenticity above all else, Springsteen has succeeded at both embodying unaffected sincerity and shrewdly deploying it as a brand: in addition to the unassuming men and women he valourised in his songs, perhaps his most brilliant character is The Boss, a Bruce-adjacent alter ego who, in hundreds of music videos, movie soundtracks and “Sopranos” needle-drops, has gone from scruffy boardwalk hustler to bandana-and-biceps teen idol to a multimillionaire in working-class drag.

In the 1992 single Better Days, Springsteen sang about being “a rich man in a poor man’s shirt.” Today, in addition to the sprawling horse farm in New Jersey, he owns homes in Florida and Los Angeles, but still convincingly radiates man-of-the-people modesty, a contradiction he deflects by being the first person to call it an act. (“I made everything up!” he says at one point. “It’s a fascinating magic trick.”) Springsteen admits that he continues to find the notion of authenticity elusive, “knowing what a self-creation I was, and to some degree still am. But the strange thing of it all is that if you do it long enough, you start to become the thing that you pretended to be.”

In fact, the man and the image now feel so organically fused that Springsteen has become an emotional instrument in his own right. The latter-day meta-version of Bruce Springsteen, as seen in both Springsteen on Broadway and Western Stars, is simultaneously subject and protagonist, humble singer-songwriter and larger-than-life leading man.

In both films, the camera often pushes in for a tight shot and stays there, a strategy that Landau notes is by design. “Some of that comes instinctively from our shared love of Sergio Leone, who is the man who proved that you could never be too close,” he explains. But it’s also the result of learning over the years that Springsteen is physically far more expressive than stylised visuals or manipulative edits. Even on huge stadium screens, Landau observes, the close-up has always been king. “The story of the song is on his face,” he says. “If you weren’t hearing the lyrics, you’d still have some idea of what he’s saying just from looking at him.”

As a movie, Western Stars began with a modest proposition. Instead of touring for the album, Springsteen intended to release a documentary of a performance he and his wife, Patti Scialfa, recorded over two days with a band and a 30-piece orchestra in their farm’s 100-year-old barn. “I said, ‘Okay, I’ll shoot the record start to finish’,” Springsteen recalls, “and that would be my tour.”

But as he watched the concert footage, he realised that the songs and their lush ’70s-era arrangements needed more context. One night, while Scialfa watched TV, Springsteen spent a couple of hours writing introductions that became the voice-over script for Western Stars. He and Zimny went to the desert near Joshua Tree, where Springsteen can be seen roaming amid the brush, reflecting on the American Dream, its disappointments, personal demons (“If I loved you deeply,” he says at one point, “I would try to hurt you.”) and his cardinal theme: “the struggle between individual freedom and communal life.”

Eventually, Western Stars morphed from a straightforward concert doc to a sweeping montage and introspective portrait, composed of present-day footage, home movies, archival photographs and an achingly beautiful live performance. In the process, Zimny realised that Springsteen’s instincts as an image-maker were just as canny 40-plus years after Jungleland. The two were in “constant communication” throughout filming, Zimny says, with Springsteen throwing out ideas far beyond just the music. “It’s getting texts, it’s getting imagery, it’s getting lines from a song and visual references.”

At one point, Zimny received a text from Springsteen suggesting a shot of his hand on the steering wheel of a vintage El Camino, then a similar image, this time including Scialfa’s hand. The bookends made the final cut, symbols of freedom and community writ large, but also a man reconciling a lifetime of restlessness and all-consuming ambition to the consolations of domesticity and commitment.

For Landau, the themes and imagery of Western Stars circle back to the conversations he and Springsteen had about their mutual love for John Ford decades ago. But mostly, he says, it reflects “the maturation of Bruce’s whole life of learning about film.” More than any previous movie or video, “this one is him from the get-go, 100 percent,” Landau says. “Every idea, word, sound, edit and cut.”

Springsteen describes Western Stars as of a piece with both his 2016 memoir and the Broadway show — a trilogy that, perhaps unconsciously, was part of his coming to terms with the birthday he just celebrated.

“I was thinking, ‘How do I sum up my experience to this point?’” he says. “The book, the play and this film, they all serve that purpose. It kind of cleanses the palate and it will allow me to move on to whatever we do next.”

The “we” in that sentence is the E Street Band and “next” is recording a new batch of songs he wrote for them earlier this year. Springsteen doesn’t see another movie in his immediate future, unless it’s the four-minute kind he’s been making all along.

“Music was always enough for me,” he says philosophically. “Anything else that came along was just an adjunct, and an organic and happy accident that came from being a musician, which is what I wanted to be my whole life.” — By arrangement with The Nation Thailand

Published in Dawn, ICON, November 24th, 2019


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