THERE’S a moment in Bruce Springsteen’s movie when raw emotion bubbles to the surface.
He’s performing Drive Fast (The Stuntman) from latest album Western Stars, rebooted as a concert film with sweeping, cinematic interludes exploring the deeper meanings of his 13 story-based songs.
The eyes moisten in that rugged Italian-Dutch-American face and you’re left in no doubt that his third-person narratives are really first-person confessions.
Beneath the swaggering super-star exterior of “The Boss”, you’ll find a big heart and a troubled soul.
“When I write in character, it’s a way of exposing your own inner life and struggles,” he affirms.
Drive Fast employs the same metaphor he’s been using all his working life for getting the hell out of Dodge . . . the same as Thunder Road, Racing In The Street or, of course, Born To Run.
“It’s easy to lose yourself, or never find yourself,” he says during one of the film’s most searing voice-overs.
'IN THIS LIFE, NOBODY GETS AWAY UNHURT'
“The older you get, the heavier the baggage becomes that you haven’t sorted through. So you run. And I’ve done a lot of that kind of running.”
His tale of a washed-up B-picture Hollywood stuntman held together by steel rods is equally about the knocks Springsteen has taken during his 70 years.
The character is just one of his “broken” drifters haunting the highways, byways and railroads of Western Stars.
“Everybody is broken in some way,” he opines in his weathered drawl. “We all have our broken pieces, emotionally, spiritually. In this life, nobody gets away unhurt.
“We are always trying to find someone whose broken pieces fit with our broken pieces, and something whole emerges.”
In Springsteen’s case, cue the entrance into his life of partner and soulmate, Patti Scialfa, in the Eighties to help forge that “whole”.
It’s through her abiding love for him as well as affection from his three children that he’s finally learning to stop running — even if things aren’t always that easy.
“I’ve spent 35 years trying to let go of the destructive parts of my character,” he says. “And I still have days when I struggle with it. For a long time, if I loved you or I felt a deep attachment, I would hurt you if I could.”
Despite his admission, flame-haired Patti is seen steadfastly at his side throughout the Western Stars concert footage, filmed in a gorgeous old barn on the Springsteen farm at Colt’s Neck, just down the road from his childhood home in Freehold, New Jersey, and “filled with the best kind of spirits”.
Oh, and a 30-piece orchestra, a band, backing singers, a small invited audience, a sizeable film crew and an overflowing bar, all beneath cathedral-like rafters.
'IF YOU DIG DEEP INTO THE FILM, PATTI'S THERE'
“The barn is pretty cool,” he tells a London audience during a recent promo trip. “It came with the property and we rebuilt the bottom for the horses.
“Upstairs hasn’t been touched since the late 1800s. It’s an incredible space so we have our parties and weddings there and we built that little bar.”
The American icon seems genuinely thrilled with his widescreen adventure which took him from his homely barn across the continent to the spectacular wide open spaces of Joshua Tree National Park in southern California for the spoken-word sequences.
Dressed down in checked shirt and jeans, Springsteen appears relaxed, fit and well-preserved for his years during a screening and Q&A hosted by Edith Bowman in the company of his go-to director and collaborator Thom Zimny.
For transparency’s sake, the quotes I’m using here are either from the film, the Q&A or a more casual chat that I and three other journalists have with Bruce afterwards.
If I loved you or I felt a deep attachment, I would hurt you if I couldBruce Springsteen
Thoughts return to Patti’s appearance which helps accentuate the film’s more positive values of love and family and Springsteen is keen to stress her central role.
He’s asked about the song Stones, which dwells on the crushing nature of lying and seems even more impactful in a live setting.
It finds him crooning, “Those are only the lies you’ve told me”, with Patti leaning into his mic and softly echoing, “Only the lies you’ve told me”. The lyrics and performance imply unspoken untruths in a relationship.
As you can tell by now, there are deep issues for Springsteen’s audiences to ponder as they watch his film unravel. "I wish them a lot of luck,” he quips. “It’s complicated s**t.”
Springsteen harbours a big regret over the Western Stars album, which was lavished with critical acclaim on its release in June, prompting him to make amends in the movie.
'THE IDEA OF A JOURNEY IS ALWAYS COMPELLING'
“I should have had Patti on it,” he says. “That was a big mistake because it’s all about men and women.
“Patti brings so much and we’ve been together for such a long time, so that’s a lot of experience around that one little microphone. We bring all of that the minute we lean in. Oh my Lord, there’s this whole 30 years of emotional life together between us.
“She’s wonderful. Even when she’s not singing with me, if you dig deep down into the centre of the film, she’s there.”
At certain intervals, old home video clips are inserted, notably scenes from Bruce and Patti’s 1991 honeymoon at a log cabin in Yosemite National Park, California.
The lovers goof around, share a kiss obscured by his Stetson and you can see a partly drunk bottle of bourbon on the outdoor table.
For Springsteen, this movie is the next chapter in a stellar run of projects which have required much soul-searching, beginning with his 2016 autobiography Born To Run, continuing with his compelling Broadway residency and culminating in Western Stars.
“I’m a man of many talents,” he says with a self-deprecating laugh. “You know I write books and Broadway plays and now I’m making movies.
“I’m going to try being an astronaut next and I’ll let you know how that goes!” He suggests his 70th birthday on September 23 might have something to do with this period of reflection.
“You’re getting to that age where you’re summing up a lot of what you’ve learned and what your life has been,” he says.
“I’ve had a really, really good run over the past five years as far as feeling inspired and being creative. I’ve done things I’ve never done before. I feel very lucky because you never know.”
'I'M A MAN OF MANY TALENTS THESE DAYS'
Springsteen understands the jeopardy of being a songwriter only too well. “Writing is a mystery,” he says. “You always think you’re never going to write again.”
He knows the feeling of “simply wandering around for a year without ideas or inspiration” before finding “another vein in your creative mind that you can tap”.
In the case of Western Stars, he cites the work of great songwriters Burt Bacharach (Walk On By, Do You Know The Way To San Jose) and Jimmy Webb (Wichita Lineman, By The Time I Get To Phoenix) as inspiration.
It explains the smooth, orchestrated major chord sound of Western Stars, a huge departure from Springsteen’s earthy, street- savvy, saxophone-fuelled work with the E Street Band as well as the understated folk stylings of solo albums Nebraska and The Ghost Of Tom Joad.
He sensed he was on to something fresh and says: “Your audience wants you to do two things . . . they want to feel at home AND they say, ‘Surprise me’.”
A real surprise comes at the end of the movie. Rather than finish on the album’s evocative but downbeat closing track Moonlight Motel, there’s a rousing rendition of Glen Campbell’s sparkling singalong Rhinestone Cowboy.
Springsteen says of the late Campbell, who also sang those two Webb classics: “When he first came out, I thought, ‘He’s a little mainstream’, but then I realised he made well-crafted records.
“He can really sing and he was a great guitarist so, as I got older, I got into that music and thought, ‘Ah, I want to make a record with those influences’.”
Springsteen’s new songs drawing on Bacharach and Webb are similarly imbued with a keen sense of geography, Tucson Train, Sundown and Somewhere North Of Nashville in particular.
This classic American songwriting trope plays into Springsteen’s travel song obsession, hence opening song Hitch Hikin’ in which the protagonist gets a lift from a truck driver described as a “gearhead with a souped up ’72”.
'WRITING IS A MYSTERY'
The Wayfarer continues the theme with its lyric, “When everyone’s asleep and the midnight bells sound/My wheels are hissin’ up the highway.”
“This is my 19th album and I’m still writing about cars,” says Springsteen in the movie. Cars have been a powerful metaphor for me. Forty years ago, they represented freedom.
“Today, not so much. A metaphor for movement at best. But are we moving forward? A lot of the time we’re just moving.”
In our chat, he speaks fondly of the teal-coloured, 1950s Chevrolet El Camino coupe utility vehicle used in the widescreen interludes evoking vast desert landscapes of old John Ford westerns such as The Searchers, Fort Apache and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
During filming, realisation dawned on him about acquiring a suitable mode of transport. “I said I’ve got to drive something. Get an El Camino. It’s classic Western.
The idea of a journey is always compelling to peopleBruce Springsteen
“When in doubt I just get in and drive the car. What are we going to do with this song? Ah, drive the car!” Springsteen adds: “Maybe cars were just a part of growing up for me but they continue to be resonant and romantic.
“The idea of a journey is always compelling to people. The image of driving is fundamentally American, particularly in the South West, just very evocative.
“There’s a geography that people carry inside them, images they’ve internalised through films and travel over the years.” So, how does he hope his audiences will react to his movie?
“Well, you come in to see it and you’re with your gal and you sit down and you’re watching it. Gets towards the end and you hold hands.”
Just like the emotional, symbolic shot you see of Bruce and Patti’s hands entwined on the wheel of the El Camino. And what’s next for Springsteen, in such a rich vein of form nearly 50 years into his recording career?
“I got to go back to the day job, you know, got to pay the bills, got to pay the bills,” he jokes, alluding to a new album and tour with The E Street Band.
“We’ll work on the record and after we get it done, we’ll start to book some dates.” Time for tramps like Springsteen to fire up his old hot rod again . . .
“One, two, three, four! The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive.”
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: WESTERN STARS
1. Hitch Hikin’
2. The Wayfarer
3. Tucson Train
4. Western Stars
5. Sleepy Joe’s Café
6. Drive Fast (The Stuntman)
7. Chasin’ Wild Horses
9. Somewhere North Of Nashville
11. There Goes My Miracle
12. Hello Sunshine
13. Moonlight Motel
14. Rhinestone Cowboy
- Western Stars is in cinemas on October 28 and the soundtrack album is out on October 25.
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