Neil Young: Heart of Gold
2006Director: Jonathan Demme
Cast: Neil Young, Pegi Young, Emmylou Harris
ow fitting that a groundbreaking documentary about Bob Dylan should be released just months before another film about his most prolific student, the equally iconic Neil Young. Both have had wildly eclectic careers built on constant change but also a kind of brand-name reliability, both endured embarrassing slumps in the 1980s (who didn’t?), and both have now settled comfortably into their roles as rock’s elder statesmen, while continuing to impress (and sometimes baffle) with an ever-expanding oeuvre of dauntingly high quality.
So it’s appropriate, then, that right on the heels of Martin Scorsese’s hagiographic Bob Dylan: No Direction Home comes Jonathan Demme’s Neil Young: Heart of Gold, a simple but exceedingly moving concert-film, covering two nights at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium around the release of Young’s 2005 album Prairie Wind and following an operation to remove an aneurysm afflicting his brain. Demme, whose Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense proved (again, following Scorsese’s lead) that concerts can make for great cinema, lends Young’s performance a heightened theatricality, while artfully blending the songs into one another with surprising brusqueness and economy of pace.
Just why Heart of Gold is so successful is somewhat of a mystery. It’s easy to see why SMS is such a classic of the genre: Byrne and company were spastic, beat-driven live performers, and the film’s show slowly builds into a spectacle that would have been interesting with even the sparest of directorial stamps. Heart of Gold, by contrast, is a far simpler, more straightforward affair, with Young barely moving from his place at the centre of the stage. There are no shots of the audience from which to exploit some vicarious enthusiasm, and little between-song banter (or at least not as much as you would expect, given Young’s proclivity toward meandering harangues during his Farm Aid concerts.) But somehow Heart works as an actual film, and even attains a kind of warm, exhilarating quality. Certainly, this feat is due in no small part to Demme, who in his narrative films has always extracted high drama from confined spaces; the most arresting scenes between Starling and Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs, for example, take place in a cell, not to mention Sethe’s haunted kitchen in Demme’s underrated adaptation of Beloved.
In Heart of Gold, it is indeed Young who remains locked at centre stage, poring through a set composed largely of material from Prairie Wind, but Demme also finds time to move around and take in Young’s band, focusing on his fellow musicians (wife Pegi sings back-up) as they exchange sly grins while keeping a watchful eye turned toward their leader. Granted, some of the new songs may be uneven (or downright lame), but there is something about Demme’s gaze and Young’s onstage presence that props up the weaker material (though a surprise reference to Chris Rock in “No Wonder” may still incite some bewilderment). The film’s last half then moves toward the older end of the catalogue, with touching performances of such Young mainstays as “Old Man,” “Harvest Moon,” and “Old King.” In interviews, Young claims that in viewing the film, these old songs have become new to him again, and it’s easy to see why: There are no duds here, and they are performed with such enduring passion that it’s hard to believe that he’s been singing some of them for over thirty years.
Demme and Young have collaborated in the past (the Oscar-robbed song “Philadelphia” from the film of the same name stands among his best ‘90s work), and the pair have clearly conspired here to further propagate the mythos that Young has been creating his whole career. For his part, Young is certainly no stranger to trying his hand at cinema; his crunching, largely improvised score for Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Mancontributed to the film’s themes of poetry in the face of brutal lawlessness in ways that account for much of its overall power. Around the same time, Jarmusch directed another concert film, Year of the HorseHeart of Gold, the two films stand as the cinematic equivalent of a Neil Young diptych, encompassing both the hard-rock yin and the acoustic-folk yang of his distinguished canon.
Though the film is quite clearly aimed at Young’s Boomer-aged devotees, one can easily see future generations starting out with the later end of his catalogue and still emerging as fanatics. Heart of Gold, for that matter, wouldn’t be such a bad place to begin: From start to finish, it’s a pleasure.
By: Bob Kotyk
Published on: 2006-03-07