Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006)
Starring: Neil Young, Pegi Young, Emmylou Harris, Ben Keith, Spooner Oldham, Rick Rosas, Grant Boatwright
Directed by: Jonathan Demme
To continue my now two year tradition of reviewing something Canadian on Canada Day, I went out and rented Neil Young: Heart of Gold last night. Although not technically a Canadian movie, as it was shot at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium (the old home of the Grand Ol’ Opry), and directed and produced by American Jonathan Demme, it features the music of Neil Young, Canada’s greatest rock musician of all-time. So I’d say it qualifies.
After enjoying a small theatrical run, the film joins Dave Chappelle’s Block Party and The Beastie Boys‘ Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That! in marking the return of the concert film to the theatre. In doing so, Demme employed 8 cameras to capture a two-night performance by Young, where he debuted his 2005 album Prairie Wind. Demme takes his cues from Young’s music, basking set designer Michael Zansky‘s backdrops in autumnal lights and focus, playing into the prairie themes and imagery of the songs. At times, Demme fades the performers into the backdrops with his cuts and dissolves, giving the film a beautiful, transitory feel that blends so perfectly with the music that it’s almost better than being there.
As for Young, he’s quietly dynamic here. After undergoing an operation to remove a brain aneurysm while recording Prairie Wind, Young seems renewed in both his music and his performance. He opens up to the crowd, sharing small stories behind the songs, and delivers his new material with his signature folksy power. He opens the first half of the movie with songs from Prairie Wind, then finishes it with selected tracks from its thematic forebears Harvest and Harvest Moon (along with a cover of “Four Strong Winds” by Calgary’s Ian Tyson) The movie is a real treat to long-time fans of his work, who should agree that he’s as good as he’s ever been here.
Or so I imagine. The thing is, I’m not a long-time Neil Young fan. Of course, I’m familiar with his best known work. I’ve been listening to a lot of his music in the past couple weeks (which prompted my renting of this, along with his appearance to promote it on The Daily Show a couple months ago), and was fairly familiar with Prairie Wind from listening to it at work. But I wouldn’t consider myself a fan, I don’t own any Neil Young albums, I’ve never seen him perform live, and couldn’t sing along with the concert while watching it. Instead, I approached this movie as a bit of an outsider, curious by the buzz, and emboldened by the holiday weekend.
And I freaking loved it. I can truly recommend it to lovers of music anywhere, even if you are unfamiliar with Young’s catalogue, or this album. Young is able to project dignity and power with his simple stage presence, with a burning intensity behind his eyes that Demme captures perfectly. His new material is right at home with the old hits, and unlike other older performers who have to mix in the old stuff to keep people interested in the new music, Young captures viewers for the solid first hour of the movie with solely new stuff. Of course, the highlight of the movie is the title track “Heart of Gold”, one of the greatest songs in the history of rock and roll. But, the new tracks, like “The Painter”, “Falling Off the Face of the Earth”, and “This Old Guitar” (about the guitar he has used for 20 years, which used to belong to the legendary Hank Williams), hold their own, and grabbed me in a way that they hadn’t before I watched the movie. Other than “Heart of Gold”, my favourite performance was of “It’s a Dream”. A hauntingly beautiful song of simple intensity, and perhaps the most melancholy song I’ve ever heard. I challenge you to watch him perform this song on his piano, with Demme mixing in tight shots of Young’s wistful eyes and quivering lips, guitarist Grant Boatwright fading into the Praire Wind backdrop, Ben Keith plucking the steel guitar, and The Nashville String Machine‘s soaring melodies, and not be intimately moved.
With Neil Young: Heart of Gold, Jonathan Demme has captured a powerful, lasting impression of one of music’s true legends. Demme doesn’t merely point a camera at the singer somewhere in the audience and walk away, but at the same time, he lets Young’s amazing music and wonderful voice carry the picture and the capture the audience. If you are a fan, it’s a must see. If you’re not, see it anyway, and you’ll become one. My only regret is not seeing it in the theatre when I had the chance (although, the DVD — shot in widescreen and presented with DTS sound does it fair justice).