Saturday, August 18, 2012

Neil Young Journeys

The bulk of Jonathan Demme's Neil Young Journeys is a concert film, a 20ll Toronto gig at which the 65-year old Young plays songs from his electric guitar onlyLe Noise album as well as a selection of more familiar older songs. Young's longtime backing band Crazy Horse (with whom Young still records) is nowhere to be found here; it's Young accompanying himself on guitar, keyboards, and harmonica and the amount of noise he makes is more than a little hard to credit. Young still finds beauty in strange, looping waves of guitar feedback and especially on the recent songs the guitar sounds complement a still-burning utopian vision of deep love for others and connection to the Earth. As for the classics, the anger at a what a country did to its people is still there in "Ohio" and a fun house organ and harmonica makes Young's '70s vision of leaving the planet ("After the Goldrush") sound strange and new.

You won't leave Neil Young Journeys with a much better understanding of Young the man, and I don't know if that was really Demme's intention. Framing the concert scenes are scenes of Young driving a 1956 Crown Victoria from his hometown of Omemee, Ontario to the concert in Toronto. Young, clearly taken with the impermanence of things, shares some childhood memories but it's never really clear why we're along for the ride. Soon enough we're inside Massey Hall for the show and it's then that the movie largely settles down, though Demme throws in some graphics about the victims of the Kent State shootings during "Ohio" and briefly cuts to home movies during a couple of other songs. Jonathan Demme's career is a testament of his love of music and musicians, from the Talking Heads' exuberant weirdness in Stop Making Sense to the wedding reception jam in Rachel Getting Married. One subject of Stop Making Sense is the unspoken interplay that happens between musicians on stage, and even in an earlier Young film called Heart of Gold Demme films Young with a full band. How then does Demme rise to the challenge of filming a solo artist?

There is a shot in Neil Young Journeys that at first seems as much of an endurance test for the audience as anything Gus Van Sant could come up with in one of his artier films. A quarter of the way into "Down By The River" Demme cuts to a camera that had to have been placed on or near the mic stand itself and holds on a shot of Young's mouth for the remainder of the song. We're taken with the novelty of the shot at first, but as it continues it's only natural to wish that Demme would cut to a crowd shot or something. What's the point? Later, during a scorching "Hitchhiker", Demme goes back to the shot, and cuts back to it several times in the song, even as a glob of Young's sweat or spit lands on the camera and stays there. Demme has no backup singers or flashy lead guitarists to cut away to, and even if he could I don't know if he'd do it. We're supposed to think about Young's singular, weird artistic voice, and the fact that he may genuinely be the last folkie, or the last hippie if you like. (Young's actual singing voice sounds as good as ever to me.) Given the song selection, Neil Young Journeys may be best enjoyed by those already familiar with Young's vast catalogue, but there's a point to be made about Young to both old fans and new. Even after all these years, we need to pay attention to his mouth.

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