By Mark Guarino
Neil Young wears a grey suit, holds a well-worn guitar, a hat with a brim tops his head and behind him the images of a prairie wave. He is from a fabled past, the kind we can today only imagine from history books or stories our grandparents told us. But maybe they were making it up too. In “Neil Young: Heart of Gold,” a new concert film by Jonathan Demme, the singer articulates a simpler world through images straight from Edward Hopper: a painter quietly choosing colors from a palette, a farmer’s wife hanging laundry, birds singing on a roof.
To anyone born around the invention of MTV, visuals usually exist to illustrate the music, delivering an exact replication of what’s on the singer’s mind. That’s not the case here. Instead, Demme perfects how music as oblique as Young’s should be presented. Using slow fades and extreme close-ups, Demme invites the viewer to huddle close into the details — the lines on the singer’s face, the rubbed-out wood of his guitar, the private smiles exchanged between musicians. It’s in these pockets that the songs tell a bigger story. A more graceful concert film was never made.
Young performed these songs for two days last August at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. The city was where he originally recorded “Prairie Wind” (Reprise), his latest album that ruminates on his Canadian childhood, his father who just recently died and his own mortality. While these may have been themes in his music in the past, the new songs take on special meaning considering the context. Young recorded the majority of these songs right after learning he needed surgery to treat a brain aneurysm. The songs, written in a flurry of days and then recorded just as quickly, do not sound rushed. Instead, their mirage of images and gentle country and soul backdrop suggest both warmth and regret, the sound of a singer hanging onto what he finds most precious and struggling to understand how he’s going to end up.
The first half of the film concentrates on nine of the 10 songs on “Prairie Wind” (the song about Elvis was left off). In the 37 years that have passed since his first solo album in 1969, Young remains one of the few interesting songwriters of that era due to his restless shifting of how we hear his music. Besides Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, he has made albums utilizing the rock stomp of Crazy Horse and others that boast Southern R&B, rockabilly, strict country, acoustic folk, electronic and usually a mixture of many.
The band on “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” is compiled of his most seasoned collaborators that include vocalist Emmylou Harris, steel guitarist Ben Keith, keyboard player Spooner Oldham and bassist Rick Rosas. At one point, with up to 35 musicians sharing the stage, which include the Memphis horns, the Nashville String Machine and the Frisk University Singers, the production looks like an extravagant road show. At other times, the songs sound as if they’re being performed on the front steps of a house. Whether standing up, sitting down, joined by one guitarist or several standing down a line beside him, Young shuffles the details of each song with such meticulous care, it becomes an evolving piece of theatre. Like the organic build-up Demme documented in “Stop Making Sense,” his groundbreaking Talking Heads concert film from 1984, the camera notices the changes, not in wide shots, but one detail at a time. Just like the accents each musician contributes to a song — at one point including a musician sweeping a kitchen broom in rhythm — the camerawork is subtle, and in a constant state of discovery.
Framed by a startling shot of the moon hung over the Ryman like a porcelain egg, the concert feels like from another time. Which is a refection of Nashville, a city where history can collide with booming infrastructure on the same block. “I often wondered what Hank Williams would have thought on the way to (local lounge) Tootsies and seeing the Gaylord Entertainment Center,” Young says. Demme dresses the musicians in vintage western wear with images behind them as homegrown as a cat walking in from the outside, a hearth and wheat fields. Colors blend together so the musicians become more of a family ensemble. Demme makes us watch them watch each other. And one is really a relation — behind Young’s shoulder is his wife and backup vocalist, Pegi Young.
Songs from the second half of the film come from his best-known work (“Needle and the Damage Done,” “Heart of Gold”) as well as those from similar albums (“Comes a Time,” “Harvest Moon”) that strike a reflective tone. Those people who appreciate Young only when he’s wielding loud distortion with Crazy Horse will have no patience here. Although these songs are gentler, there is no less discord. Singing in a trembling falsetto, never his range, Young creates a sense that, despite the luscious slide guitar and cooing harmonies that surround him, he’s alone with his imperfections and fears.