It’s been widely reported that for his most recent album, “Western Stars,” Bruce Springsteen sought inspiration from styles of music he had never previously leaned on: the smooth orchestrated pop that composers such as Jimmy Webb and Burt Bacharach perfected in the 1960s and ‘70s. As he pointed out, less noted is the fact that for the first time in his career, he used major seventh chords.
Yet as different as “Western Stars” is from his other 18 studio albums, for the film of a performance of the album, he leaned on something very familiar: Telling his personal truths — about his shortcomings as a person, his desire for a better tomorrow for his family and country, subjects like redemption and forgiveness and love.
Between songs in the film, which had its New York premiere on a very rainy Wednesday on the Lower East Side, Springsteen reflects on his life and songwriting much as he did in his book, Broadway show and at many a concert with the E Street Band.
“It was all very organic,” Springsteen said of the process of writing a script for the concert film he co-directed with longtime collaborator Thom Zimny. “We weren’t going to tour, so I decided to film a performance of the album and then, out of that, I felt like I needed to have a way that the fans could access the inner life of the songs. And so I started to write a script that turned into a movie, and here we are.
“It’s not something you’re thinking a lot of before you do it.”
Zimny said the spoken portions of the film — which truly distinguish it from other concert films — evolved after the two sat down with an early cut and the interstitials were interviews with Springsteen talking about the songs. “It didn’t feel right, and Bruce came back with this script and it worked.”
Springsteen started contemplating the album in 2012 and over time wrote about 40 songs before editing it down to the 14 that made the collection. The film was much quicker: they rehearsed for a day with the orchestra in New York, then once in the barn on his ranch in Colt’s Neck, N.J., and then shot it over two days.
“We looked at the Paramount Theater in Asbury Park, and thought about that,” Springsteen said of his location scouting, “but the barn was really, really significant. It worked out perfectly.”
Zimny, who has made all of Springsteen’s archival films and won an Emmy for directing the “Springsteen on Broadway” pic on Netflix, attended some of the album’s recording sessions but didn’t film any of them.
Then Springsteen called and suggested they make a film of the album’s songs. Just the “cinematic nature” of the songs, Zimny says, made it different from the Broadway film. “We knew we wanted a small audience, that the film would really capture the fullness of the sound of the orchestra. The songs are small movies of their own — they’re all [self-contained] stories.”
Collectively, they mapped out the shots and worked side-by-side in the editing room piecing together the performance, old home movies, shots of the open wilderness and Springsteen’s commentary. As Springsteen said at a London Q&A this week, “It was very enjoyable because I got to go inside the songs again, and try to have a deeper understanding of what they were actually about.”
Wednesday’s event was attended by longtime Springsteen associates such as Steven Van Zandt and Jimmy Iovine plus manager Jon Landau, Clive Davis and filmmaker David Chase.
Variety got The Boss to smile and shrug when we questioned his selection of “Rhinestone Cowboy” as the film’s lone cover. It’s one of the few Glen Campbell hits Jimmy Webb did not write.
“It was just a song that came up in an instant, you know,” he said. “A really beautifully written song [by Larry Weis] and it was always one of my favorites by Glen Campbell.”