With only one co-directing credit, Bruce Springsteen hesitates to call himself a filmmaker. However, with a beloved songbook that has always relied on characters to tell his stories of America and the people who populate it, “Western Stars” is a debut that’s well-suited to its creator. Part concert film and part rumination on the characters created on his eponymous record, the documentary cuts between a “live” performance and arty vignettes that find Springsteen portraying both himself and the characters who live inside the album’s 13 songs.
Despite decades of superstardom, Springsteen understands that new work can be a tough sell even to the most dedicated fans. Here, he didn’t have a tour to entice them to experience “Western Stars” in person. And he knows that, despite decades as a superstar, his music is no longer favored by FM radio. So he turned to another beloved medium: film.
“Usually, we make a record and we tour, because I’m either on the radio for 24 hours [a day] on our Sirius station, or I’m usually not on it at all anymore,” Springsteen said in a recent interview at his New Jersey home studio, Thrill Hill. “You can’t depend on radio or the usual outlets for promotion. If I just put the record out, it’s going to come out, people are going to buy it, it’s going to disappear. So how do I give the record a longer life? The new songs, how do I get people inside of them? How do I give people access to them?”
From there came the idea to offer introductions to each song on the album, a meditative (but not altogether melancholy) work that tracks characters like a fading Western movie star, a banged-up stuntman, and a kid who runs away from a heartbreak by taking a job breaking horses. Seeking to illuminate the “inner life of the songs,” Springsteen penned a script in one night that included voiceovers that spoke to his personal connection to the songs as well as mini-films that tied into the cast of characters.
As he created a new score for the would-be film, co-director Thom Zimny located key visuals that would bring Springsteen’s concept to life. “You sort of end up conceptualizing and collaborating completely on the whole thing, so that’s where my director’s credit comes from,” said Springsteen. “Once we started choosing images and editing, we worked right in this little room, and it was just a real collaboration between the two of us.”
The “little room” in question is a comfortable spot at Thrill Hill, a former garage that Springsteen and his wife and bandmate Patti Scialfa turned into a recording studio a decade ago. It’s usually a private space, but he recently opened the studio doors to a small group of film journalists who wanted to talk about John Ford and Martin Scorsese, rather than the backing arrangements on an early album (or whatever it is that rock nerds freak out about when they are confronted with The Boss).
He wanted to be clear about his role in the film that he made with longtime collaborator Zimny, who previously directed a number of Springsteen videos, his recent Broadway show, and the documentary “The Ties That Bind.” “I didn’t get anywhere near a camera,” Springsteen said with a laugh.
But his cinematic influences and storytelling acumen are on full display: It even opens with the classic Warner Bros. logo that played before John Ford’s 1956 Western “The Searchers,” a well-known Springsteen favorite. In his twenties, Springsteen said his primary influence was the pop radio of the ’50s and ’60s, but as his music career took off, he turned to other pieces of culture “as a template for how to do his job.”
“I became a bit of a film buff,” he said. “I ran into John Ford, and I thought it was interesting the way that he was working on certain consistent themes as every picture went by. Every picture sort of related to another one in certain ways. You had the cast of characters. He had the ensemble that he worked with really steadily. I had my band, and I was interested in telling this sort of longer story, where each album would relate to one another in a certain way.”
Ford and Monte Hellman and all the Westerns formed the bedrock of his cinematic education, plus plenty of Howard Hawks, Robert Mitchum, and the noirs. Springsteen is just as enthusiastic when talking about modern influences, like Martin Scorsese and Terrence Malick.
“At the time I wrote ‘Nebraska,’ I’d seen [a] Terrence Malick [film] for the first time. Malick’s films are, what are they? They’re meditative. A lot of voiceover. ‘Days of Heaven,’ ‘Tree of Life,’ that was always something that really drew me in. All of these things started to resonate and find their way into themes and soundscapes that I was interested in. The ‘Nebraska’ album really came from the soundscape of ‘Badlands.’ If you listen to the music behind it, it’s fairy tale-ish.”
He’s still consuming new films at steady clip, including Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (“one of my favorite pictures of the past years, it was just quite touching, quite lovely”), which shares some of the ideas and themes of “Western Stars.” And he’s wild about the newest Scorsese; not only is he a devoted fan, but he also recognizes how it speaks to his own obsession with the passage of time.
“‘The Irishman’ was just beautiful, to see that cast working together again and to see Marty at the top of his game,” Springsteen said. “Those guys are history and you’re never going to see that again, that group of actors. There’s never going to be a group of actors quite like that again. And if you grew up with them as folks in my generation did, it’s a powerful picture.”
Much of “Western Stars” examines the tension between the desire for individual freedom and the need for communal experiences. While the film eventually reaches a point of grace between the two (punctuated by a bookending pair of visuals conceived of by Springsteen), he’s long been compelled by the power of consuming culture alongside others. It’s why his concerts are such a joy, and it’s why he can recall his earliest memories of moviegoing with crystal clarity.
“My generation of people, we’re used to going to the movies,” Springsteen said. “We had a great movie theater in the center of Freehold, and had one thing that advertised it: ‘It’s cool inside.’ That was it. It didn’t have the banner of the movie that was playing there. ‘It’s cool inside.’ … It was 35 cents if you were 12 and a dollar once you hit 13, so my mother would just say, ‘Tell them you’re 12. Get down. Just squat, scoot down a little bit, and tell them you’re 12.’ And the guy would say, ‘How old are you, son?’ And I’d go, ‘t-t-twelve’ and feel really shitty about it!”
Springsteen recalls his early moviegoing as the kind of small town, slice-of-life stuff that illustrates so many of his songs. “You went to the movies every week. It was just Saturday, movie day,” Springsteen said. “You saw films every single week and you saw whatever was being played on Saturday and Sunday, in a theater with hundreds and hundreds of other people. In Asbury Park, theaters fit thousands of people and that’s what they expected to come to the movies, thousands of people to see a film on a Friday night. And they did!”
When “Western Stars” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, it showed at the Princess of Wales Theater, a multi-level movie palace that holds upward of 2,000 people. “I haven’t sat in a theater with 2,000 people watching one thing since maybe ‘The Godfather’ or ‘Taxi Driver’ or ‘The Exorcist,'” he said. “Imagine going to see ‘The Exorcist’ with 2,000 other people.”
Even with his undying love of the theatrical experience, Springsteen maintains a practical perspective when it comes to Netflix. “I’m not a regular filmmaker, but I’ve got to imagine, particularly if you’re doing something where you’re using a ratio that’s really cinematic, you’ve got to be prepared for people o be watching it on their computer,” he said. “Marty Scorsese shoots ‘The Irishman’ for years and years, and he’s got three weeks in the theater and then a lot of people are going to be watching it at home. It’s kind of a shame, in that way, but there’s more people with home entertainment setups with good sound and big screens. We’re in an enormously transitional period in the way that films are shown and viewed. We’ll see where it goes.”
Notably, Springsteen allowed the streamer to film the final night of his Broadway show for the platform. Like “Western Stars,” he saw it as a way to give fans access to his work. “It just extends the life of what you’re doing,” he said. “I have to find new ways to extend the life of the presentation of my [work].” He’s also eager to return to the old ones, with a tour — not his last, he promised — planned next year with the E Street Band.
Asked if he had any interest in seeing his life turned into a movie, Springsteen said someone recently pitched him an idea for a film about his pre-“Born to Run” days. “I haven’t dove into that yet,” he said. “It’s kind of something I’ve just held off on, because so few of them are successful.” He laughed. “Finding someone to play yourself is really weird.”
In August, Warner Bros. released another Springsteen-centric feature with the warm and winning Gurinder Chadha dramedy “Blinded by the Light.” The film features a dozen Springsteen songs and is a lightly fictionalized version of the coming-of-age of Bruce superfan Sarfraz Manzoor, who also co-wrote the film. Springsteen does not appear in the film (aside from some archival interview footage), but it’s framed around the revelatory discovery of his music.
Back in the day, Springsteen was in the mix for a handful of big-screen roles, including a part in the film version of “Hair” and the starring role in Frank Pierson’s 1978 “King of the Gypsies.” However, he’s never been an actor beyond playing himself (or a version of himself), and he’s not eager to add “actor” to his body of work.
“I had years of preparation to be a musician and to be a writer,” he said. “I understood that when I was 25 and a couple of people were looking around to see if I had any interest in it. I said, ‘Well, I feel like I just haven’t done the homework or the preparation to be an actor.’ I didn’t have the confidence, whereas the music I was completely confident in, in at least what I was doing. And I liked that feeling, so I stuck with it.”
Still, Springsteen comes to filmmaking with core skills as a natural storyteller and an understanding of what makes people respond. He chose to include one song in “Western Stars” that doesn’t appear on the album, a jangly and fun cover of Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy.” Asked why, and he slips back into filmmaker mode, attuned to how things ebb and flow and what it all means for the ultimate goal: the audience’s experience.
“Because it was celebratory, and I could’ve left the film with [the more melancholy] ‘Moonlight Motel’ and then had the voiceover, but the character in the film makes this journey and it needed to be celebrated a little bit,” he said. “That song was celebratory, so when it comes up, it’s a release for the audience. They may not know why, but that’s why.”
Warner Bros. will release “Western Stars” in theaters October 25.
Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.