After writing the book of his life story, Born To Run, and producing his own theatre show, Springsteen on Broadway, it seemed that rock’n’roll legend Bruce Springsteen might have been ready to slip out of the media limelight for a little while. Not so: Springsteen came to TIFF this year with a brand new concert film documenting his recent album Western Stars, featuring all-new songs (with the exception of a rousing cover of Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” which comes at the film’s end and kicked off a huge standing ovation in the theater) laced together with a series of revealing interviews about his life and his music.
So auspicious was the occasion that at tonight’s Roy Thomson Hall premiere of the movie, TIFF broke with tradition to include a Q&A (the venue is usually too large), and Warner Bros. chairman Toby Emmerich stepped up to moderate. “If you had told me 40 years ago I would share a stage with Bruce Springsteen,” Emmerich joked, “I would have imagined the experience would have been three seconds – just long enough for Terry Magovern to wrestle me down and rush me off the stage.”
Springsteen modesty claimed that the film was just a way for him to present the album visually without him getting in the way. “Really,” he said, “it was just a collection of new songs that I had that pieced together in a certain way and which had a certain ambience to them that evoked the western part of the country and a certain style of songwriting—southern California in the ’70s—so I was interesting in writing in that vein. And there was an emotional arc that I was trying to communicate, [which is] what the film brings out even more than the record even did. When we added the spoken pieces in between the music, that really brought out what the album was about much more to the fore.”
Co-director Thom Zimny, a longtime Springsteen collaborator, confirmed that it was a very different kind of project, possibly because the venue turned ended up being a converted barn on the singer’s own ranch. “[It] was very different right from the very beginning,” said Zimny, “because we got into a dialogue that was different than the other films [we’ve made together]. And it was really exciting, because we were responding to the material together, in the moment, and that was a very different filmmaking experience [for me] than in the past 19 years.”
“I think ending up in the barn had a lot to do with the way the thing felt, you know? It was just kind of gritty and intimate,” Springsteen added. “It was very intimate, which is what a lot of the songs are.”
The result is an up close and personal concert film that explores many facets of The Boss, from the slow-burn opener “Hitch Hikin’,” to the moody confessional country blues of the title track, to the anthemic radio pop of “There Goes My Miracle.” “When we initially discussed the shooting, I wasn’t going to go on tour,” noted Springsteen, “so I thought, ‘Well, how am I going to communicate [that].’ I said, ‘Well, we’ll just shoot this stuff live from start to finish.’ Which we did, and then we figured, ‘Well, we’ll do some interviews and do what you would normally do on a music pic—people will talk about how great I am to work with and what a pleasure and honor it was,’” He laughed. “The usual sh*t, you know! So we started to do some of that and it didn’t quite feel right.”
Instead, Springsteen spent a couple of hours in front of the TV writing an interstitial script that put his heart right out on the line. “And suddenly we had this whole other sort of film that excited the two of us,” he enthused. “One that we hope communicates well to the audience for our music.”