Demme’s Masterful Portrait of Neil Young in Concert
It took a few years until I appreciated the music and genius of Neil Young. My high-school girlfriends all loved Neil Young, Crosby Stills Nash & Young and all the other derivations. His music didn’t fit into the profile of my young teenage angst. I was geared to Led Zeppelin, Blue Oyster Cult, Rush or other art rock icons such as Pink Floyd Emerson Lake & Palmer, King Crimson and… well you get the idea. But one day I decided to actually listen to Neil Young. Go to one of his live performances. See him act in an independent film. And like many things in life, I appreciated Neil with a little age.
And my recent viewing of Jonathan Demme’s “Heart of Gold” reinforced and added to the plethora of reasons of why Neil Young will always fill playlists on my iPod. At first glance you might think it odd that the director of such heavy handed dramas of Oscar winning films as Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia and most recently the excellent remake of The Manchurian Candidate would direct a documentary and concert film of an aging hippy rock star. But Demme’s appreciation and talents have enhanced musical performances for the big and small screens in the past. He’s directed a number of videos for Bruce Springsteen and one for Chryssie Hynde and the Pretenders. Ironically enough, Demme recruited both Springsteen and Young to write and record songs for his 1993 Academy Award Winning (Best Picture and more) film Philadelphia. Both songs received Oscar nominations for best song, but Springsteen’s took home the prize that night. Yet perhaps Demme’s most groundbreaking musical film work was for his 1984 Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense.” All Demme’s accomplishments are duly noted but for “Heart of Gold” it’s the collaboration of Young and Demme that makes “Heart of Gold“ glitter.
Many concerts films never see the big screen. Instead they are relegated to special features on cable television or simply go straight to the DVD racks, its refreshing to watch “Heart of Gold” on the big screen. If you ever wanted to unobtrusively sneak around the stage of a Neil Young concert capturing an intimate look at Young and his army of friends including EmmyLou Harris, Ben Keith, Spooner Oldham, The Memphis Horns and countless others Demme takes you there. Without resorting to tired special effects or hyper kinetic editing, Demme favors the use of long lenses to expose the musicians up close personal and intimate. The film is shot in 16-mm giving the film a raw, intimate and unpolished look not unlike Young’s nearly 40 year catalog of music. What’s more, the concert footage is virtually absent of audience shots which contributes to the on stage intimacy of being with the artist and his songs. Only during the opening of the second set and at the end of the last song does Demme gives us the perspective of sitting in the first few rose as silhouettes of fans rise to a standing ovation.
Shot in Nashville last summer at the Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Olde Opry, “Heart of Gold” is primarily a concert film featuring the debut performance of his last album, Prairie Wind. The film opens with short but pointed commentary by Young, his wife Pegi and many of the musicians as they ride to the concert. It’s here we learn that during the recording of Prairie Wind Young packed his suitcase to travel to New York for neurosurgery to treat a brain aneurysm. After the successful operation he returns to Nashville to complete the album. This brush with mortality combined with the recent loss of his father results in a concert that is at once nostalgic and lonely while warm and uplifting as the poignant song list wanders through themes of death, dreams, family and friends. Yet with all this nostalgia, loss and reflecting “Heart of Gold” is a positive look at an artist who is at once comfortable in his own genre, but throughout his career never was afraid to explore, sample and play. Unlike many guitarists who seem to spend more than half their shows switching out guitars, Neil plays the same old beat up guitar for the entire performance except at one point trading guitars with one of his band-mates. His short narratives between songs reflect memories of his career and family life growing up on the Prairie in Winnipeg, Canada. At one point he remembers how he got the guitar his guitar — which was used to record Heart of Gold — his only number one hit. But there’s more to this guitar than that. It once belonged to Hank Williams whose last performance before he died was in this very same auditorium — probably playing that guitar. Young laments of the change he sees in Nashville and wonders what Hank would think if he stepped out of the auditorium today to see the massive Gaylord Entertainment Complex across the street, now home to the new Opryland. But with all the change Neil sees in Nashville he looks sincerely at the audience and says “It’s still got its spirit. And that’s a good thing.” Waving above to the heavens, Neil launches into “This Old Guitar” a tune from Prairie Wind destined to be a Young classic.
As voyeurs on stage with Neil and his friends, it’s amazing how the songs and his voice sound as good as they did years ago. Young, who turned 60 last year, may feel the impending doom of his mortality, his songs are During the second set, Neil delivers heart wrenching renditions of his timeless classics Heart of Gold, Needle & The Damage Done, Comes a Time and before delivering a soulful Old Man tells us who inspired that song — with his eyes closed during most of his performance Neil may be thinking he’s the old man today.
While the army of Young’s staple musicians, horn and string section and the physical beauty of EmmyLou Harris and his wife, perhaps the best part of “Heart of Gold” is the last song where Young, alone and stripped of the hat he wore during the hole show sits alone on stage in the empty auditorium as once again Demme’s camera de voyeur lets us sneak up behind him and listen to Young – alone and real – with the spirit that can’t burn out and refuses to fade away.
“Heart of Gold” was released on February 10th. If it’s playing in your area make the time to see it. If not, put your name on the DVD waiting list!
Heart of Gold Directed by Jonathan Demme Starring Neil Young, EmmyLou Harris, Pegi Young, Ben Keith, Spooner Oldham & more Produced by Bernard Shakey (aka Neil Young) 100 minutes playing in selected theatres nationwide.