“I started playing the guitar because I was looking for someone to correspond with. And after all this time I still feel that need to talk to you.” — The Boss.
The best movie I saw in a cinema in 2019 was WESTERN STARS, a complete masterpiece of a concert film that I likened to Jonathan Demme’s landmark 1984 feature STOP MAKING SENSE. It presented a simple concept, that of a filmed performance of an album in a barn with a full orchestra and band, that made an intimate connection while still being grand in scope much like Demme’s brilliant filming of the famous Talking Heads concert. It left me breathless throughout, tapping my feet on the theater floor and went right through my soul in several musical moments. While 2019 had its share of amazing features and documentaries, nothing had the raw power that WESTERN STARS did.
At the time I saw it, I was unaware of the connection between Bruce Springsteen and filmmaker Thom Zimny had and were collaborating for many years on projects together. Back in 2018 The Boss had already released a Netflix special SPRINGSTEEN ON BROADWAY which was a complete presentation of his final show on Broadway in 2018. I caught up with that documentary on Netflix recently and while there is a lot to love by way of The Boss’, the film itself suffers from a VERY long 2.5 hour run time as opposed to WESTERN STARS’ lean-and-mean 83 minutes.
With that said, what I love is how all of Zimny’s projects are different in presentation. This is such an exciting thing to realize as Zimny’s outstanding follow-up LETTERS TO YOU is so beautiful in its simplicity and yet equally grand in its presentation. In the aforementioned Netflix Broadway special, The Boss had a mixture of acoustic performances and piano playing all by himself and his wife Patti Scalfa turning up for a duet. WESTERN STARS went much bigger, using a full orchestra and band and showcasing Springsteen’s loud-and-proud aspect of his collaboration. LETTERS TO YOU shows the entire process of creation and recording a new album in a more intimate setting by way of a small country-side farmhouse. In doing so, it’s a loving reminder of the power of his main collaboration over the last few decades, the E-Street Band.
Filmed entirely in luminous black-and-white (which stands out even further when the intermittent flashback footage switches to striking Kodachrome-style color), Zimny’s camera gets right in there in that shared space between recording and performance, using a lot of hand-held and perfectly timed edits to let you feel the creation in that space. I also greatly admired how carefully Zimny edits go through; there is a combination of long-takes and some extreme closeups along with quicker cuts and coverage when needed. You get a feel for that house and its rules and even how all of the E-Street band, his wife Patti and even the tech side use the house, and you really do feel like an eavesdropper in the process.
There is also a great feeling of time passing and loss in LETTER TO YOU as well; the lack of presence of Clarene Clemons, one of Bruce’s main collaborators and the reason for my personal falling in love with the saxophone, is definitely missed here (though his nephew Jake Clemons definitely is welcome and is a killer Sax player himself) and the movie makes wonderful mention of it. You can feel that in the expressions of the surviving band members, in particular Max Weinberg who has decades of his own world experience on his face and expressions…and any fans of Conan O’Brien will rejoice in seeing him here for sure.
Like with my love for WESTERN STARS, I want it to be clear that I am evaluating these feature films on their own terms and not just for my fascination of the artists within. There are good movies about good artists, and also poor movies about good artists as well. It’s very important to still be a movie first and foremost, and Zimny’s work should be celebrated as he bridges that very careful gap between music and film. And at 71, Springsteen just keeps on moving and refusing to slow down and he has entered a new era of entertaining his audiences in unique ways. The Boss, Patti and the E-Street Band are by far the best “old man performers” by a mile with an energy and drive that is absolutely inspiring. That these glorious and intense new recordings are accompanied by feature films of equal power is an absolute gift.
Rating: **** out of ****
Bruce’s Springsteen’s LETTER TO YOU begins streaming on Apple TV+ on October 23rd. If you have been on the fence from subscribing to the service, this movie alone is worth making the jump. WESTERN STARS is also now available on Apple TV/iTunes. Don’t miss both!