MOVIE BUFF-ET: ‘Western Stars’ proves there’s a little country in Springsteen rock-n-roll soul

Warner Bros. Pictures

Remember that time Garth Brooks tried his hand at rock-n-roll and took on a fictional persona as Chris Gaines?

The new Bruce Springsteen concert film “Western Stars” reminds me of that a bit in concept but not at all in execution. Springsteen delivers a strong album and a concert film of it rather than just a gimmick.

Springsteen, whose music has always had a grounded with an earthy narrative quality, proves in his co-directorial debut with longtime collaborator Thom Zimny that the Boss could’ve been a country-music star of the highest order.

I’m guessing the album “Western Stars” is classified as Americana in today’s parlance, but its sound is pure late 1960s/early 1970s Countrypolitan with its acoustic and pedal steel guitars offset by a swelling 30-piece orchestra.

Shot in the upper deck of a 100-year-old barn with a cathedral ceiling on Springsteen’s ranch in Colts Neck, New Jersey, the concert portion of the film has the feel of a somewhat intimate club performance with a rich sound that rivals an auditorium built for musical fare. I say somewhat because most clubs don’t have the room for an orchestra that’s absolutely vital to provide the bold scope of the landscapes carved out by Springsteen’s sweeping but still intimate lyrics.

The subject of the album is a man moving forward while still being haunted by the ghosts of his past. For the bulk of the United State’s early history, moving forward meant moving west, and the personas Springsteen delineates in his 13 new songs are men of the west — ranch hands, rodeo riders, and a stunt man who was “shot by John Wayne” in one of his films. Love lost and found and other demons a man just can’t shake make for potent lyrics, and the musicianship of the band Springsteen put together for the project only makes them more heartening.

Springsteen’s wife of 27 years and bandmate for longer Patti Scialfa is the only E Street Band member to play on the album, and in the concert, Springsteen and her voices blend effortlessly.

With just one listen to the album on film, it’s a bit difficult for me to say much about the individual songs, except that I want to hear them again, and that “Wayfarer,” “Drive Fast (The Stuntman),” and “There Goes My Miracle” were standout tracks to me.

Every aspect of the concert footage was gorgeous from the lighting to the angles that reveal the character of the barn’s loft and the musicians that bring it alive.. Likewise the footage shot at Joshua Tree National Park in California, and his own New Jersey estate are beautiful.

Springsteen voiceover narration of the footage that introduces each song is somewhat mesmerizing thanks to Springsteen’s husky, graveled voice. I’m not sure how much the movie gains from the introductions, but all of it is at least interesting.

Springsteen caps the 13 new songs with a cover of Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” that debuted in 1975, the same year Springsteen hit with “Born to Run” and made the cover of Time magazine. It’s a faithful version but interesting to hear because of the cragginess of Springsteen’s voice compared to Campbell honey-smoothness.

If you’re a Springsteen fan, I’d say the movie is a must-see. I think the mileage will vary for other viewers because the film contains only the tunes from the new album and none of his classics.

(PG) 1 hr. 40 min.
Grade: B

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Classic Corner – Celebrating Cinematography

John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Henry Brandon, and Antonio Moreno in The Searchers

Wednesdays in November are the reason DVRs were created. Turner Classic Movies celebrates the 100th anniversary of the American Society of Cinematographers each Wednesday this month by showing a specially curated selection of films selected from eight decades of movie making to showcase the art and craft of shooting a movie.

Cinematographers or directors of photography light sets and actually shoot the photography for films, working in close coordination with the director to capture the look and feel of the concepts presented by the screenwriter, production designer and other visual creators on film. Cinematographers determine the camera angles, setup and movements along with the director to achieve the latter’s vision on the big screen.

Along with the director, the cinematographer is the person most responsible for the way a movie ultimately looks when it is presented to an audience. Their efforts can make or break a movie.

The lineup for Nov. 6 reads like a film critic’s personal top-10 list of favorite films. Here’s a list:

5 a.m. The Magnificent Ambersons
7 a.m. Casablanca
9 a.m. On the Waterfront
11 a.m. North by Northwest
1:30 p.m. Bridge on the River Kwai
4:30 p.m. The Searchers
7 p.m. Image Makers: The Adventures of America’s Pioneer Cinematographers
8:45 p.m. The Grapes of Wrath
12:45 a.m. Sunrise
2:30 a.m. Metropolis

I’m excited to see the documentary “Image Makers: The Adventures of America’s Pioneer Cinematographers, which debuts at 7 p.m. Nov. 6, with several other airings throughout the month.”

TCM doesn’t show a lot of documentaries, but the ones it does select are usually top notch. The subject is the first group of cinematographers who left New York to forge their way west to set up the first studios in Hollywood.

The Searchers
As for the films, you can’t go wrong with any of them. John Ford’s “The Searchers” is one of a few movies that jockey in and out of the No. 1 spot on my personal top 10 list. The movie is the heart-wrenching story of a mean and nasty former confederate soldier who searches for his kidnapped niece (?) for years after her family was slaughtered in a Comanche raid of her home.

In recent years, the movie has been criticized for the lead character Ethan Edward’s overt racism toward native Americans, which is definitely a significant plot point, but the Indian-fighter played by John Wayne does have an arc in the film that leaves his soul in a bit cleaner spot than when the movie began.

The film shot partly in Monument Canyon, Colo. is epic in every way. Many film fans believe it is Ford and Wayne’s best film. That’s a powerful statement.

But, each film TCM’s is playing throughout the day on Nov. 6 is someone’s favorite film. It’s a great lineup of movies. Join me in checking a few of them out once again, and if you haven’t seen them before, you’re in for a treat no matter which one you select.