Review 2019-04-00 Stone Hill Farm, Colts Neck, NJ

Perfect Barnstorm: 'Western Stars', The Film


* Spoiler alert! Don’t read if you don’t want to know details from the film yet *

I was lucky enough to experience the ‘Western Stars’ film at its European premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, thanks to a ticket from my friend and BFI member Magda (bless you, sis!). We were treated to several bonuses: a red carpet appearance, a brief introduction to the film, and afterwards a 20-minute Q&A from its director and (Western) star, Mr Bruce Springsteen, which was the icing on a very sumptuous cake. If you get the chance to see this on the big screen, take it; while we expect a later release on DVD/Blu-Ray, the theatrical setting adds an invaluable extra dimension.

The performance is set up by a crane shot of the interior of Bruce’s upstairs barn space, giving you a sense of its arched roof and ancient character, with a bar along one long side and the apparently minuscule area at one end used for the stage. Somehow they got 30 musicians in there without it looking like a squeeze. Patti is shown walking through the downstairs area and leading the viewer up the stairs to the loft and towards the stage, an ingenious and inclusive way to set up the show, as if you are about to sit at a table and join the lucky few there.

Also remarkable are the logistics of fitting all the filming equipment required into the room, including a crane camera enabling views from multiple angles. The lighting is subtle and low-key, yet Bruce and the ‘orchestra’ are shown in superb detail, often in extreme close-up, with occasional silhouettes of the front row of the small invited audience, whose applause is included and natural but not intrusive (Bruce exhorted the London audience not to applaud after each song, and this advice certainly made for a smoother viewing).

The album is played in sequence, each song introduced with short spoken pieces and gentle instrumental backing by Bruce, which add an extra dimension to the songs; he describes it as a ‘meditation and tone poem’, and the cumulative effect is mesmerising, almost trance-like ‘in some fashion’. Its 83 minutes pass quickly. The sense of intimacy is enhanced by the use of montages of archival footage during the interspersed sections, vintage clips from Bruce’s early days, and from home movies, such as a honeymoon scene with Patti where they goof around at a picnic table for fun – Bruce was a film director even earlier than now. The vignettes complement the music, and draw you further in to the overall story of what Rolling Stone calls ‘a visual album’. It’s the magic of ‘1+1=3’ again.

Credit is due to the remarkable musicianship of the largely unknown ensemble, which is of the highest quality. The relatively few familiar faces include Charlie Giordano, Soozie Tyrell, Lisa Lowell, Curt Ramm and Barry Danielian. Patti provided backing vocal arrangements to the troupe of singers. As always, Bruce combines his own work with being bandleader to his many companions, and the chemistry is flawless. Their joy at playing is evident from the smiling glances between them; at one point I thought I saw Bruce give a quick wink to someone ahead. The most obvious evolution in the arrangements is adding Patti to duet on songs such as ‘Stones’ – as they share a microphone, the power of the tale of betrayal and hurt is vividly, almost brutally amplified; it feels strikingly confessional.

The combination of the intense, personal, in-your-face delivery, in widescreen with high quality sound, packs both a sonic and emotional punch that affected me on many levels, literally breathtaking at times. I thought an eight-piece string section (as heard towards the end of the 2016-17 ‘River’ tour) was heavenly; that’s doubled here, with horns as well, and the joint effect at cinema volume is huge.
Bruce introduces the title track as the key to the album, reinforcing my belief that his records often have a particular track as their thematic heart. In this case I’d say ‘two hearts’, since ‘Sundown’ provides the emotional centrepiece for me, just as it does on the original album. Reflecting early in the film about his use of car images and metaphors, ‘Moonlight Motel’ completes the ‘meditation’, with a memorable image of Bruce and Patti’s hands clasped together fittingly on a steering wheel – their journey together continues, in what he’s described as a love letter to his wife. Finishing with the upbeat ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ cover is exactly what’s needed to send us out walking tall. As the credits roll, Bruce and Patti sit at the bar in the loft while a man sweeps up around them in the otherwise empty barn.

I had two instincts at the end: to give a standing ovation, of course, and I needed to hug someone – luckily Magda next to me obviously felt the same and obliged! Recommendations: bring tissues; and have a dear friend beside you for this ride, someone you can exchange glances and the human touch with, like you would at a concert; it makes all the difference, and as we know, ‘the older we get, the more it means.’
For anyone questioning why the film soundtrack is being released on the heels of the studio album, this experience should blow away any doubts. As perfect as the original album is, the film makes that feel like a museum piece in comparison, a collection ‘under glass’, while the cinematic version breathes even fresher life, volume and scale into these songs, whose creation started eight years ago. Bruce once said: ‘you make the record so you can do the show’, and this is no exception. Knowing he wasn’t going to tour behind this album, a live performance shared this way is an inspired solution, and a generous gift, an exclusive, loving invitation to a small-scale event and a taste of his private world. I came away feeling at least in part as if I’d been at a Springsteen show, albeit a house (barn) concert – reminding me of his more intimate solo outings like the ‘Tom Joad’ tour, when Bruce also urged us not to clap between the songs - and the glow afterwards on the faces of friends who’d also attended said much the same. The beauty of seeing this in a cinema is that every seat is the best seat in the house for this show. ‘Grab your ticket…’

By Dan French via Facebook.
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