Didn’t we just have a Neil Young concert movie? And wasn’t it one of the better concert movies to come along in a while?
Well, yes, on both counts. “Heart of Gold,” released in 2006, was a terrific performance by Young, and Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme caught the moment in just the right way. They also did a less-seen 2009 concert picture, “Trunk Show.”
Young has always been interested in movies, so it’s not surprising that he’d return in a different mode and a different mood. In “Neil Young Journeys,” the Canadian bard is solo, working a darker vein and pouring out a considerable amount of angst.
Demme is directing again, and this time the film has a non-musical frame: Demme’s camera rides shotgun while Young drives from his childhood hometown of Omemee, Ontario, to a gig at Toronto’s Massey Hall (which, not coincidentally, was the site of a legendary Neil Young live recording in 1971).
So, occasionally, we return to the image of Young tooling around in a 1956 Ford Crown Victoria en route to the show, as he talks a bit about his childhood and compliments his brother (ahead of them in a pace car) on his navigational skills.
This device is one of those great ideas that don’t turn out to be all that great. Young’s memories are pretty mundane, even a little toneless. For someone so lyrical in music, he can be a flat-footed speaker. Beyond observing that things sure have changed a lot in a half-century, there aren’t a lot of pearls here.
But that’s why you have the music. And when the man gets onstage, things get pearly.
Most of the songs come from Young’s 2010 album, “Le Noise,” a feisty, soul-searching group. But mixed into the live performance are classics, such as “After the Gold Rush” and “Down by the River,” which Young does not take casually, even if he’s performed them thousands of times.
Demme’s approach keeps the focus on Young as a soloist, letting some songs play out in single takes. Included are some extreme close-ups that might challenge even Young’s diehard fans (at age 66, he’s looking more wiped-out and snarly than ever); during one such take, a tiny camera, locked below the microphone, catches a rather large gob of spit on its lens. Long may it run?
For Young’s furious classic “Ohio,” the account of the campus shootings at Kent State in 1970, Demme opts for a surprisingly heavy-handed approach. But maybe that’s a way to keep the subject alive.
So, a very solid concert picture, mostly for Neil Young fans. Young and Demme are already working on another project together. Good for them, although I wonder how much water will come from dipping into the well quite so often.
“Neil Young Journeys”(3 stars)
A very solid concert film, with most of the material taken from Young’s 2010 album “Le Noise,” with a few classics mixed in. Director Jonathan Demme takes an extreme close-up approach, which works pretty well with the music, not so much with a framing device that follows Young as he drives from his Ontario home town to the concert hall in Toronto.
Rated: PG for subject matter.