A day before it opened, I had the good fortune of catching a private screening of Jonathan Demme's concert film Neil Young: Heart of Gold. As I sat there waiting with five other people for the movie to begin, I pondered the difficulty of effectively capturing then transferring a live concert to the silver screen (and then DVD) and how few have succeeded -- Martin Scorsese's documentary about The Band's final concert in the The Last Waltz, Woodstock, Festival Express (which is really more about the train's journey across Canada and the musicians jamming on that drug-and-booze fueled trip then the actual concert clips), and interestingly enough Mr. Demme's ode to the Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense, and his more recent Storefront Hitchcock, featuring Robyn Hitchcock in solo performance.
Demme also filmed Young and Crazy Horse in 1994 in performances of four songs from Neil's Sleeps with Angels, available together as The Complex Sessions. Now comes Demme's intimate, personal tribute to songwriter Neil Young -- a former Woodstock performer with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. This is a very heartfelt, spiritually uplifting performance recorded at the Ryman Theater in Nashville featuring the world premiere and complete reading of Neil's most recent CD, Prairie Wind, plus a handful of his well-known chestnuts from Harvest and Harvest Moon; his country-folk trilogy.
It was an intense time for Mr. Young, having recently survived a brain aneurysm. Mr. Demme's eight-camera crew explores every nook and cranny of Young's revealing, aging face. The movie is nearly all portrait-framed close-ups with Neil's eyes closed as he relives his life through song. Whether strumming his vintage Martin - once owned by Hank Williams - or sitting behind a full grand Steinway, his weathered fingers never miss a string or key, his quavering voice never falters.
One senses that Canadian-born Neil is a cautious, painfully shy person far more comfortable playing music than answering questions, and Mr. Demme allows for the full artistry of his music to resonate with his audience rather than trying to tease answers out of him. His music and lyrics emanate from a very deep and spiritual well with a strong connection to family, friends and longtime musical colleagues. One of the most beautifully realized moments occurs when Neil stands alone at the lip of the stage, just his guitar and soul laid bare while reliving the ghosts of fallen rock and roll comrades in "The Needle and the Damage Done."
No between-songs banter is needed, though Neil does share a wonderfully intimate account about buying his ranch in La Honda and how the elderly gentleman who was the caretaker inspired his song "Old Man," from his seminal acoustic album Harvest. His achingly beautiful, high, quavering voice lifts the song higher and higher to some heavenly vantage, the Ryman audience suspended by his performance. It's as fly-on-the-wall as one could hope with a movie production crew lurking in the shadows.
But Demme never lets the cameras stray from Young for long, though there are cutaways to his bandmates, including leader/steel guitarist Ben Keith, bassist Rick Rosas, keyboardist Spooner Oldham, Neil's wife Peg on background vocals along with Emmylou Harris, a gospel choir, even a horn and string section from time to time.
If you are a young musician, do not be put off by this grand yet reluctant patriarch; rather, embrace his artistry, for he is a master craftsman sharing his muse through Mr. Demme's lenses.
His is a heart of gold.
Converge is the Word!
Mr. Wright is the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released 3 solo CDs and a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was an agent at the William Morris Agency!