Throughout most of his career, Jonathan Demme has been effortlessly bouncing between narrative and documentary filmmaking, the latter of which often revolves around music, starting with 1984’s groundbreaking concert film for Talking Heads, “Stop Making Sense.” Combining his filmmaking talents with his love for music, Demme sought not just to document concerts on film, but to create a cinematic experience around the music.
“I arrived at a couple of things that have been boiler plate for me,” Demme tells The Playlist. “I don’t think we want to see the audience. I don’t think we want to be reminded that this film was performed for anyone other than us. I like finding a great shot and then just staying with it for a long time, not trying to pump things up with some kind of artificial energy by cutting. What interested me was, how can we make this concert film for a moviegoing audience as much as possible? We’re not interested in a record of a concert. We’re interested in a cinematic experience for the moviegoer.”
Over the years and in between critically-acclaimed narrative work like “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Philadelphia,” Demme has worked with bands such as New Order, The Pretenders, Bruce Springsteen and, most recently, Neil Young.
A longtime Young fan, Demme found a creative kinship with the legendary rocker when the two worked together on the 2006 concert documentary “Neil Young: Heart of Gold.” Three years later they re-teamed for 2009’s “Neil Young Trunk Show.” In their latest collaboration, “Neil Young Journeys,” Demme traveled with Young in his 1956 Crown Victoria from the musician’s hometown of Omemee, Ontario to Toronto’s iconic Massey Hall for the final two nights of Young’s solo world tour. “Journeys” intersperses footage from the concert with a road trip tour led by Young through his humble beginnings.
Speaking about “Journeys,” Demme was extremely enthusiastic. His passion for the material and the enjoyment he felt making the film come through in every word he speaks about the experience. Here are some highlights from our interview.
The Passionate Performances of Neil Young
“Journeys” presents a very intimate look at the music of Neil Young. Perhaps the most impressive part is how seamlessly Young transitions from newer material to longtime classics, his passion for songs played thousands of times indecipherable from songs being performed live for the first time on this tour. “He’s a total immersion artist, so he becomes the song,” says Demme. “That’s part of his magic. He’s not performing these songs, he’s living them. What you see is the music from Neil’s last tour. We felt it would really make a phenomenal movie. This show was too rich and cinematic to not film.”
Up Close and Personal
The passion of Young’s performance is captured brilliantly by Demme, at times right up and in the face of Young as he belts out lyrics from “Hey Hey My My,” “Down by the River” and others. “There’s two songs where we have that super-wide, super-close angle and it really focuses more on his mouth than on his face. We had that for every song, but I wanted to use that for ‘Down By the River’ because it felt like the right place to be, standing right there with this guy who’s confessing this horrible thing that he’s just done. So it really felt right on that song. And then later it’s kind of a deranged angle, a deranged shot, so when he sings “Hitchhiker” and tells the story of all the drugs he’s taken and how wigged out he got over the years, that seemed like a fantastic angle to use for that song.”
While some artists might question a director placing a camera inches from their face, Young has a trust of Demme and a lack of vanity. He’s much too wrapped up in the music to worry about such things. “Neil really doesn’t have any of that appearance vanity,” says Demme. “He looks like what he looks like and he doesn’t worry about that. All his energy is focused into telling a great story with every song. And I think that Neil, who is so cinematic himself, sees the power of that show. So I would imagine at the end of the day he’s like, ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’ ”
Road-Tripping with Neil
The intimacy of the performances in “Journeys” is juxtaposed nicely with a seat beside Young in his Crown Vic traveling down the open road. “There were two reasons that I wanted to do that. One was that I felt it would be a dimension that we hadn’t really done on the other films and it would help to define the originality of this film as opposed to our other films together. And also, these songs are so intense, it will be great to bring some oxygen into these films. For example, we go on this run from ‘Ohio’ to ‘Down by the River’ to ‘Sign of Love,’ three powerful songs. Let’s open up for a while and savor that intensity before jumping in for more.”
DVD Plans and Future Collaborations
The DVD/Blu-ray release for “Journeys” will likely feature additional performances from the Massey Hall show along with more footage from the road trip. “There’s about five songs that we didn’t put in. So we do have songs that were great that will be bonus features on the DVD. And we are in the process of selecting more things. There were a lot of fun moments in the car ride, so we’ll have a little sidebar of that stuff too.”
Demme has now finished a third film with Young, a “de facto trilogy” in Demme’s words. As to whether the two will collaborate again, Demme says he is very open to the possibility. “It’s really only a trilogy because now there’s three films,” Demme tells The Playlist. “I hope that we work together again. I love working with him. I think that he’s a brilliant artist and a great person. He’s just cinematic. There’s something about him.”
“Neil Young Journeys” opens on June 29th.