Jonathan Demme and Neil Young have become unexpected bedfellows for the last six years, teaming up for an unexpected trilogy of concert films. Neil Young: Heart of Gold came first, an elegant greatest hits line up with Young’s favorite collaborators and the singer/songwriter in contemplative mode after a brush with death. Next was the more rough and tumble tour doc Trunk Show, far more modest in style and ambition and never even released on DVD. Now we get Neil Young Journeys, the most intimate movie of the trio. The intimacy comes musically with Young performing solo in a stripped down affair this time as well as surprisingly open segments between the songs with Demme capturing a few fleeting moments of personal reflection from the guarded performer. It’s ultimately a concert movie, so if you buy a ticket know that it’s for the music. But Demme is still one hell of a filmmaker, adding in a few stylistic and personal flourishes to give a brief glimpse at the mysterious gentle soul and towering talent.
The concert itself was shot at Massey Hall in Toronto in 2011. Young played the same set at every stop in his tour leading up to the film, as if perfecting a performance for when the cameras rolled. Young stomps around the stage in cloths he seems to have clung to for months like a beat down prophet. He cranks out more feeling and grace on his own than most musicians can muster with a backing band of famous faces and commands attention every second he’s on stage. Given that Young is a bit of an audiophile and techn-nut, he supervised the recording himself and the results are so crystal clear that some of the art house theaters where this thing will inevitably play might have to beef up their sound system to get the full effect. Classics like “Ohio” mingle seamlessly with new tracks like “You Never Call,” proving Young to be an artist who never wavered or lost his way. He always played for himself and his audience numbers rose and fell without a affecting his craft in any significant way.
While Demme is famous and widely lauded for his fiction features like Silence of the Lambs or Something Wild, he is of course a longtime creator of performance films and one of the best, knocking out classics like The Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense, Robyn Hitchcock’s Storefront Hitchcock or even Spalding Gray’s Swimming To Cambodia with ease. His mandate is always to put the performer first and try not to get in their way, while always subtly controlling his camera to turn the live performance into a satisfying cinematic experience. His work on Journeys is simple, yet impactful. Most of the time, its merely comprised carefully framed shots of Young doing his thing, but every now and then evocative flourishes sneak in. During “Ohio,” Demme inter cuts footage of the Kent State shootings that inspired the song and using spit screens to show the victims while Young sings. It sounds like a distracting music video trick, but Demme weaves it in well, using the material to support the song rather than take away from it. Perhaps his most noticeable and enjoyable visual experiment is to place a camera right on Young’s microphone, allowing the performer to belt straight at the audience and fling a little saliva on the screen. Again, rather than being distracting it only draws you further in.
The director also seeks to show a little of the personal side of Young, while still maintaining the gentle human distance he always considers paramount in documentaries. Between songs we see footage of Demme in a car with Young driving to the Toronto show and visiting key locations of his youth spent in Omemee, Ontario. Demme never probes for stories or details, merely letting Young share what he wants. Sometimes it’s an arcane or humorous observation and sometimes a mundane thought like his discussion of how his brother drives at just the perfect speed that can unexpectedly turn into a moment of reflective poetry suited to one of his songs. It isn’t much, but given how private Young has been throughout his career, those fleeting moments Demme captures give us a glimpse of the human side of the musician that he rarely reveals outside of his lyrics. Ultimately, enjoyment of the film will come down entirely to your appreciation of Neil Young or a lack thereof. For those intrigued by the wandering soul, it’s quite a wonderful little experience and a worthy companion to Demme and Young’s impressive Heart of Gold. While it would be nice to see Demme have another crack at studio or even indie filmmaking since he’s one of the most under-appreciated American directors around, at least his side career as a gentle documentarian that gives us nice little tastes of Demme amid his prolonged absence.