By John H. Foote
WESTERN STARS (****)
Bruce Springsteen is without peer as the greatest rock and roll poet in music history. His blue collar background has brought out some of the most intensely personal songs in modern music, singing about life in small towns, girls, cars, family, friends and life. Very few artists possess the ability to write songs that seem to be speaking directly to us, to a single person but The Boss has that innate ability. My younger brother Steve turned me on to Springsteen. With me it was movies, with him, music, and I believe his love of Springsteen has come to define him. .
Our father was a blue collar guy too, humble beginnings leading him to 40 years in General Motors, but he knew he did not want that for his children. Instead he raised artists, an actor, a writer, a sometimes actor and a gifted artist felled by a stroke. Perhaps that is why Springsteen’s music means so much to Steve, he feels much of it speaks to him, is about his past, his life.
Western Stars is a fascinating documentary about the creation of Springsteen’s new album of the same name. Like many artists The Boss continues to evolve, to grow as an artist, and has been hugely successful doing it. Several Grammys, an Oscar, a Tony, and further Grammy and Oscar nominations to go with his awards, he is not content to sit on his laurels. Driven, he writes and carries on. We see his process here, and in 100 year-old barn which he has renovated, he and and an orchestra play the songs from the album to a group of friends. Each song is explored, Springsteen’s raspy voice on the track, emotionally talking about each tune.
It is endlessly fascinating to hear this seventy year old rock and roll legend talk about his work. Having revealed his issues with depression in his best selling novel, you look at Springsteen as more human than ever. How could a rock God have troubles? With a wife he adores and who adores him, a family, more money than his children’s children children will ever need, what has he got to be depressed about? His book was revealing and very brave, and if you have read it, you see him differently in this film. There are times he seems lonely, despite being surrounded by people who love him, even down, until he straps a guitar on and sings with that big rasping voice that is instantly recognizable.
Springsteen was one of us, he always will be. Born blue collar, forever blue collar. Yet his songs champion getting out of those small towns, chasing dreams and girls, finding your place. The film opens up his inner world, exploring his inner demons and how he overcame them, though admits he still struggles. If you expect to see the E Street Band, forget it, a thirty piece orchestra accompanies him and the musicians he handpicked for the event. As my brother, the ultimate Springsteen fan says, “he is a live performer” and he is right, the songs from his “Western Stars” album take in greater meaning, resonate deeper when he sings to an audience. He is a rock God and for 90 minutes we are up close and personal with a God who loves music, rock and roll, his wife, his children his parents and sibling, and America.
THE AERONAUTS (**)
When in the air, it soars with stunningly beautiful cinematography and the extraordinary Felicity Jones. But when on the ground, the film is dull, feels stale, it is a crushing bore. That lovely, gentle chemistry Jones had with Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne in The Theory Of Everything (2014) is gone this time, as Redmayne is underused. The film features glorious shots from a hot air balloon as it soars high into the heavens, where the frigid air catches them both off guard, yet also brings them together. A rarity these days, an adventure movie without men and women in super hero costumes, the film is set in England, 1862 and a meteorologist, James (Redmayne) and balloon pilot, Amelia (Jones) embark on a journey to prove weather can be predicted. The higher they go, the nastier the weather becomes, making their lives hell, and putting them both at terrible risk. Amelia is seeking to heal from a troubled past, hoping higher altitude will bring redemption. The film is much more about her than James, who frankly plays second fiddle to her. When back on ground, the story goes flat, uninteresting, but in the skies how it soars. Jones is brilliant, stealing the film right from under the nose of a Redmayne, no slouch of an actor. She brings steely determination to her character, with a fragile vulnerability just below the surface. Redmayne is good, but again has very little to do this time. The scenes in the air crackle with excitement, and when things go wrong, they are in danger no question as Mother Nature reminds them that she is always in charge. For those sequences and Jones performance it is worth a look.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”