Though Bruce Springsteen's songs are a vibrant part of the contemporary American songbook, he regularly uses his lyrics to express his deep misgivings about the proverbial "American dream."
With "Western Stars," a full-length feature film out Friday that marks the Boss's directorial debut, New Jersey's favorite son is once again looking at a question he's grappled with for decades: the struggle between transient freedom and communal life.
The meditative concert film features sweeping pans over California's wide expanses — think wild horses, a muscle car on the open road and cacti bathed in a rose sunrise — interspersed with Springsteen's family home movie footage.
It is effectively the 70-year-old icon's replacement for a tour to promote his latest solo effort.
Springsteen plays his full "Western Stars" 13-track album in the film — it hearkens back to the 1970s-era golden age of the Laurel Canyon music scene — with backing from band members including his wife Patti Scialfa as well as a 30-piece orchestra.
The recorded live performance, filmed in a barn on Springsteen's property in New Jersey, features sweeping crescendos of strings that project a luxurious warmth — the aural equivalent of slipping into a hot tub in the middle of the desert at dusk.
But the music's hazy glow contrasts with the edge of the artist's piercing inner reflections, as Springsteen considers the demons he's repressed and the aches he's caused after nearly half a century in show business.
"It's easy to lose yourself — or never find yourself," his voiceover says in the film. "The older you get, the heavier the baggage becomes that you haven't sorted."
Considering the "destructive parts" of his character, Springsteen says that in his younger life, "if I loved you, I would try to hurt you."
"You run until you've left everything that you've loved and that loves you behind," he says.
"I've done a lot of that kind of running."
– 'Living in good faith' –
Though his fame is rooted firmly in his skills as a musician, Springsteen as auteur is not necessarily a stretch: the performer has long imbued his lyrics with a cinematic quality.
The brawny superstar burst onto the international stage in 1975 with "Born to Run," taking his audiences into bleak small American towns that contained youthful desires for adventure.
"Western Stars," his 19th album, marks a sharp turn from his signature hard-driving rock that recounted the mundanities of everyday life and blue-collar struggles, making him a working class hero.
But Springsteen maintains the character-driven storytelling element that has long shaped his work, centering on the tale of a lone, washed-up Western movie star adrift and in search of roots.
Springsteen considers "Western Stars" — which he co-directed with Thom Zimny — the third installment in a trilogy that began with his acclaimed 2016 memoir and his wildly successful intimate show on Broadway.
The rock star has been open about his battles with depression and self-loathing, saying publicly he's been in therapy for decades and continues to aspire towards, as he puts it in the film, "living in good faith."
"Lost is something I'm good at writing," he says. "Gravitating towards pain feels more like home."
"You don't know how to hold onto love but you know how to hold onto hurt."
Scialfa, his wife of nearly 30 years and member of his famed E Street Band, plays guitar and sings in the film, but also is charming in home movie from the pair's honeymoon.
Springsteen reminisces about the early days of their romance spent on a park bench in front of New York's Empire Diner, where he eventually proposed.
"When you're young, it's all about going where I want to go, doing what I want to do, I'm going to be who I want to be, and that's okay for your twenties," he told late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel this week.
"But somewhere in your thirties, it starts to catch up with you and your definition of freedom has to expand to include family, your civic life, you know, community that you're involved in," he continued.
"If it doesn't… you get stuck out in the cold, you know? Really out in the cold."