Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jul 17, 2012 9:27 pm 
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My my, hey hey, Demme does Neil Young in concert the simple way

Neil Young's anthemic rock never dies, though it weathers, for as one of his famous song lines says, rust never sleeps. In this new solo concert film by Jonathan Demme shot in May 2011 at Massey Hall in Toronto, site of one of his most famous albums, the 66-year-old, ever crustier and more grizzled but indomitable rocker uses acoustic guitar, two electric guitars, a harmonica, a pump organ, and a piano and does a mixture of songs from the Seventies with major emphasis on his 2010 album, "Le Noise." Young doesn't jump as high, his body doesn't swing as hard, but he is still a singer-songwriter and rock guitar giant at the top of his game, even without his group Crazy Horse, which did the hypnotic recurrent theme music of Jim Jarmusch's classic Dead Man. Tall and craggy, with his distinctive quavering high pitched voice singing out clearly over the loud electric sounds, Neil Young is one of the great, simple, determined, authentic musical voices of rock. In one 1970's song about the Kent State killings he just sings "Four died in Ohio" over and over and over, and that exemplifies his style. He moves you, he cows you, he wins you over with plangency, determination, and authentic feeling. There is no one quite like him. Of course some don't get it, and since there are no frills here, except a lot of camera angles and an easy talking car trip with his brother Bobby from his home town, Omegee, to Massey Hall ninety miles away, the uninitiated or the unresponsive may walk out early. Let it sweep over you, though, and it's balm to the soul. This man is real. Some have complained that this very straightforward Demme Young doc is flat. That he's too craggy and scraggly: as if he was ever pretty. They even carp that his spit clouds a lens during a particularly rasping and loud song. But this is the truest and purest of the three films Demme has made with the great rocker. Since the essence of Neil Young is his drive and simplicity, and this time nothing gets in the way, Journeys provides a particularly satisfying experience.

The concert, a very fine one, apparently begins with the trademark 1979 "My My, Hey Hey" ("rock and roll will never die") and includes "Down by the River" from 1969 and "Ohio," the latter augmented by onscreen footage of Kent State and portraits of the four murdered students. The drug-soaked road tale "Hitchhiker" is from 1975 and it includes loud wailing guitar. When Young comes back for an encore he wails and reverbs even more with a new song, "Walking," during which he sets down the guitar in front of speakers and lets it sing its feedback while he actually walks around the stage. It doesn't look calculated because Young's moves are assured and simple. No talking, no fancy bows.

Some find the new songs too experimental, likewise with an extended version of "Love and War" that may have gone on too long. And so too with some of Demme's camera-plants. Inside the piano may be tolerated (though the singer's face is partly hidden), but on the mike gets a tad too close to the grizzled face for comfort: though this camera is used only for two songs, it's at least one too many, the spittle on a lens unappetising. Nonetheless, Demme does not get in the way of the music as so many rock docs of the past have done -- nor does the music get in the way of the songs. According to Rob Nelson of Variety the recording was done at 96-kilohertz sound delivery, twice the normal sampling rate, meaning live concert quality sound (depending on the auditorium the film is projected in, of course) and delivering unusually clear lyrics for most of the songs. And this adds to the pleasure and is essential for a solo concert like this. And most of the new songs, particularly the plangent "You Never Call" and "Leia," are as emotionally direct as ever and unmistakeably this rocker's songwriting.

Demme is a huge Young fan, and this film follows closely upon Neil Young Trunk Show (2009), which followed Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006). Those two earlier films were produced over a longer period than this one, which was moved from shoot to release in a mere four months, and they had higher production values and were supplied with interviews, fancy lighting, and generally elaborate extra-concert material. The only extra intercut here is the quiet trip from the home town to Massey Hall with Young at the wheel of his Fifties Ford quietly delivering memories of now-gone houses; a school named after his famous father Scott Young, a journalist and prolific writer; of fishing, summers in a pup tent; blowing up a turtle, "so my green roots don't go so deep." But these are only touched on. Those who want to get more of the personality and the causes, including the green one, must watch Trunk Show. Heart of Gold examines the man more closely: it has a lot of soul searching, due to Young's narrow escape from a fatal brain aneuryism at the time. Those two are classier music documentaries. But the new one lets nothing get in the way of the music, and that's a good thing -- unless you don't respond to Neil Young's music, in which case, why are you watching a Neil Young documentary of any kind? There have been a lot of Neil Young music docs, not just Demme's three, but this one is the most unadulterated musical experience, and one in which there is more concealed art than some have realized, not the least of it the unusual sound quality.

Debuting at Toronto in 2011, Neil Young Journeys was released in the US June 29, 2012.

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