A few years ago at a MusiCares benefit in Los Angeles, the night’s auction items weren’t moving very well. So Bruce Springsteen stepped in for the faltering MC and started to sweeten the deal: Yes, they were offering one of his signed Fender guitars, but what if he added a one-hour private lesson, too? And tickets to an upcoming show, with a personal backstage tour? A pan of homemade lasagna prepared by his then-87-year-old mother, Adele? A hug, right there?
He got the money (about an extra quarter of a million dollars, in the end), and the winning bidder, a stunned-looking blonde woman, stood in the ladies room afterwards, nearly hyperventilating. “I can’t believe I did it,” she kept laughing over and over.
The point, maybe, is that the Boss can sell just about anything to anyone — including the idea that the bard of working-class New Jersey can also play the role of a washed-up California cowboy looking down the wrong side of a long Hollywood career on his lauded recent concept album Western Stars, released this past June. Now it’s become a concert film, which he debuted at a pre-premiere screening yesterday for a small group of journalists as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.
Stars, codirected by Springsteen and his longtime collaborator Thom Zimney and due in theaters Oct. 25, is set up as an intimate sort of performance documentary with a series of philosophical scene-setters between songs — many of them featuring Bruce in boots and jeans and ten-gallon hat, roaming the dusty roads and scrublands outside Joshua Tree.
“I had the book [2016’s Born to Run] and then the play [Springsteen on Broadway], and this is sort of a completion of that little trilogy of work,” he said during a post-screening Q&A with Zimny. “If you listen to the record it’s its own experience, but making this film allowed me to tell a story that I hadn’t directly told before. It’s hinted at and all over the years, in a lot of my work… [But] the film just deepens the emotional content of that music in a way that I hope will provide some entertainment and inspiration and insight to my fans.”
Here are more of Springsteen’s thoughts on the making of Stars:
On setting it so close to home:
“That’s actually the upstairs of my barn, dressed up quite a bit. It was just very intimate, which is what a lot of the songs are. When we initially discussing the shoot, I wasn’t gonna go on tour, so I said ‘Well, how am I gonna communicate and deepen the record a little bit?’ So we said “We’ll just shoot the stuff live from start from finish,” which we did, and then we figured we’d do some interviews and do what you usually do in a music pic, you know — people talking about how great I am to work with and what a pleasure and honor it was — the usual s–t, you know? [Laughs]
“We started to do some of that, and it didn’t quite feel right. So one night in front of the TV I wrote that whole script in about a couple of hours, just sort of sitting there thinking ‘You know maybe these songs, because they’re new, they need individual introductions.’ And then with Thom, we put together the images and shot the footage that we ended up with and suddenly we had this whole other film that excited the two of us, and we hope will for the audience.”
On exploring the Western vibe:
“You know, I grew up on Westerns, so that has a lot to do with it. And the Southwest was always just interesting to me just because of its size and the way it played on my own psychology. And I lived in California for almost ten years and I enjoyed it very much.
“I was out of New Jersey, but I wanted my work to include and encompass the entire country and all of its settings. So very early on on [the 1978 album] Darkness [on the Edge of Town], there’s songs set in Utah and different places like that, and that was a big part of America for me. So it was nice being able to do this, to get out there and actually film in that part of the country, the western landscape there.
Mentally you’re thinking of Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, a certain sort of physical presence that they had…. Glenn Campbell was actually a huge influence, and Jimmy Webb, all that kind of Southern California pop.”
On stepping outside the E Street Band:
“Basically there’s a music director, which I’ve never used, and he put together the entire band and rehearsed the entire album. So the first time that I walked into the studio with him just to rehearse, they knew everything better than I did. [Laughs] So we spent a night rehearsing, then we rehearsed a day in the barn, and my recollection is we started shooting the next day, and we shot for a couple of days and that is what you see on screen.
“So it was a very different type of experience for me, that someone put together the entire orchestra and I could just come in. They had everything down to a T, and then we expanded on that a little bit. But for the most part the thing was put together and rehearsed and recorded in about four days with the exception of the pieces between the music.”
On finding a way to tell the story between the songs:
“The first thing I say at the top of the film is that there are two sides to the American character: There’s this isolated side and then there’s this other part that aspires to community. Most of us have a hard time putting those two things together in our own lives, you know? And so you get to the end of the film, and those are my honeymoon tapes — we honeymooned in Yosemite in that little log cabin, and Patti [Scialfa, his wife] was a couple of months pregnant with our second child and we just drove up there. The only thing she said was ‘I’m pregnant, so don’t take me anywhere that’s hot.’ And Yosemite was 70 but getting there across the California desert was about a 100 degrees so I didn’t earn many points. [Laughs] But that’s footage that we just happened to find and it kinda completes that story that I started a way way long ways from there.
“So the film is about making that journey, making your peace with having a life. Actually allowing yourself to have a life, being able to enjoy that life along with all of the pain and the heaviness that it brings and a lot of the pain that it takes to get there. But those are the deep satisfactions, and hopefully watching the film sort of gets you in touch with the trip that you had to make. So the film is universal in that way, I hope, and adds a little insight into the price of what that takes to get there.”