Neil Young is a salty dude. Forthcoming, irreverent, introspective, and witty, even as he approaches his mid-sixties, the musician has lost none of his rockability. The man is still writing new songs, for crying out loud, now nearly 50 years after the inception of Buffalo Springfield made him an international sensation. Jonathan Demme’s new rock documentary, “Neil Young Journeys,” is the third collaboration between the director and the musician, following 2006’s “Heart of Gold” and “Trunk Show” in 2009. The two first met when Young was composing the closing song for Demme’s 1993 film, “Philadelphia,” and this trilogy was conceived of not too long after. In this last installment – part concert video, part interview-on-the-go – Young, and his saltiness, are given their full due in an electrifying rock doc that will make you want to stand up and cheer.
This film depicts two kinds of homecomings for Young, and, in so doing, illustrates the journey that his life has been. On the one hand, the concert footage is taken from one night, May 11, 2011, at the Massey Hall Theater in Toronto, where he also gave a memorable performance in 1971. On the other, Demme primarily conducts his interviews in Young’s car, as the pair tours the musician’s childhood homes in southern Ontario with Neil’s brother Bob Young. First, they drive through Omemee (pronounced Oh-ME-me), where Young waxes poetically, with cutting humor in equal measure: they pass an elementary school named for his father, Scott Young, a famous Canadian writer; on the other side of town is a lake, where Young remembers killing a turtle by sticking a firecracker in its shell. The caravan’s next stop is Pickering, at a plot of land that once held the house Neil and Bob were raised in. Though the building’s no longer standing, Young hasn’t forgotten exactly what it was like to live there: “It’s still in my head. That’s why you don’t have to worry when you lose friends… because they’re still in your head. And in your heart.”
The concert, interspersed with moments from the interviews, captures a journey in and of itself. Young sings his most famous hits (“Down by the River” and “My My, Hey Hey”) and newer material (“Peaceful Valley Boulevard” and “Love and War”) alike. And in each number, the musician lives up to his legacy, performing with all the ardor of a person half his age. Or, rather, with the same energy he brought to Massey in ’71. Young is not a musician that has aged poorly, nor does he attempt to feign youth. He has evolved and ripened with age, and allows this to inform his newer music and the concert itself: he’s no less passionate, but perhaps a little bit more wise. Still, dressed in a simple black t-shirt and jeans, a frayed white blazer and worn straw fedora topping off the outfit, Young hasn’t stopped being a total rock star.
The most powerful number is absolutely, without a question, “Ohio,” which doubles as a performance and a tribute to the four students killed at the Kent State shootings. Demme splits the screen, and Young sings live on the right while footage from Kent State fills the left. The old film then fades into pictures of the four students – Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, Sandra Scheuer, and William Knox Schroeder – accompanied by their names and birth and death dates. The performance is both invigorating and affecting, and the combination of Young’s passionate rendition with the grainy, washed out footage and photographs creates a much deeper experience of the song. For viewers who’ve never heard “Ohio” live, this is a wonderful version to start with.
The film’s camera work is imaginative and energetic. Aside from the alternating wide shots of the stage and concert hall, medium shots of Young, and close-ups of his face – which are all fairly typical of concert footage – we get views of Young through his instruments and equipment. Demme has attached additional cameras to the organ and piano, and when Young is seated in front of them, we catch glimpses of his face through their openings. The choice is inspired, particularly for the two numbers played at his pianos: 1970’s “After the Gold Rush” and the plaintive, staccato “Leia,” from 2010.
However, if there’s one problem with the rock doc, it’s the microphone-cam. The view is certainly interesting, and gives a whole new definition to “up close and personal.” But there’s something about seeing the singer’s face only inches away, projected to a 20-foot height on screen, bellowing into the mike, that’s just, well, distracting. Or disconcerting. Or both. In any case, the sequences where Young’s teeth are as tall as someone’s head might not be for everyone.
If you like Neil Young, if you like rock documentaries, if you like creative cinematography and great guitar riffs – hell, even if you like the wilds of Ontario – this is a movie for you. In this third collaboration, Demme has found a successful balance of concert and interview, and sewn the two elements together in an inspired interplay of the spoken and sung word. “Neil Young Journeys” champions the songs and the character of the famous musician, celebrating 50 years of writing and recording beautiful music.
A final word on the film: if you see it in a theater – and you definitely should – the sound will blow you away. Demme doesn’t shy away from using concert-level volume and Young loves experimenting with feedback. Be prepared. [A]