By Richard von Busack
Jonathan Demme once made the best rock concert film ever. And Neil Young Journeys (tickets, showtimes here) Demme’s film of Young’s 2011 Le Noise concert in Toronto, is up there with Stop Making Sense.
Demme’s 2006 Young concert movie Heart of Gold (review here) was often very touching, but it hit the nostalgia button too hard. That’s probably inevitable when you play the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. By contrast, this stunning film of Young’s Canadian solo show is a huge improvement. It’s far more spare and upfront, less lost in the idealized past even though Young shows us where he came from.
Demme contrasts the baker’s dozen songs with a road trip. It’s an 84-mile car journey between Young’s childhood home in Omemee, Ontario and the brick Massey Hall in Toronto, where Young is set to perform.
The Massey stage is dressed like a hippie living room. There’s a row of amps in frayed yellow tweed, a fringed lamp with glass cabochons, and a cigar store wooden Indian. Around these props, Young works on his Frankenguitar Old Black and that beautiful hollow-bodied Gretch White Falcon.
There’s a bare-entrailed upright piano, a painted- up grand, and a Gothic pump organ. Seated at the last, with a harmonica holder on his chin, Young plays a knockout version of “After the Gold Rush,” with its spine-chilling, Bradburian last verse.
“There is a town in north Ontario…” Thanks to this film, we finally see that town, and it’s even greener and more peaceful than we might have imagined. A sluggish river runs by it. But unlike the slow parts of Heart of Gold, this film isn’t a pastoral. The walls of feedback and fuzz demonstrate Young’s ability to fill a building with the sound of his guitar.
This gives some muscle to what I think is some puniness in a song that I liked, Young’s take on the traditional Omie Wise style murder ballad, “Down By the River.” When Neil Young was 24, he didn’t sound like someone who could kill a girl with a gun. Now that he’s an older, stranger and meatier man, there’s more of a threat in the song.
Young begins this show with “Peaceful Valley Boulevard,” a number about the malign transformation of our continent, from the buffalo hunters to the modern traffic jam: "’People make the difference’ read a billboard/Above a long line of idling cars.”
Neil and his equally laconic brother Bob visit the vacant site of the roadside house where they once raised chickens. Demme switches the camera around and shows us the bulldozers and big-box stores rising on the opposite side of the road.
During Young’s revival of his Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young hit “Ohio,” Demme slaps up big red Godard-style capital letters with the names of the four victims of the “tin soldiers” of the Ohio National Guard. The same resignation and fearless strength dwells in Young’s “Sign of Love,” an ode to an aged lover, who seems slightly suspicious of affection.
This third collaboration between Demme and Young demonstrates great trust between performer and documentary-maker. And Neil Young Journeys doesn’t just sound like art, it looks like it.
A scrap of blown up super 8, filming the crowd as if by concealed camera, turns into a blizzard of pixels, scattered like the embers of a skyrocket. Through the four different cameras used in this shoot, Young breaks down into a series of thrillingly novel and noble abstractions: the imploding straw hat, the shapeless, ten-day stubbled neck, the milky yet peculiar eyes. One drop of flicked saliva turns a circlet of the camera’s lens into a funhouse mirror.
The cracked, seraphic tenor voice is a scalpel-edged instrument, but Young is nobody’s swan. Behold the anti-Bieber.