There is a town in North Ontario, or at least somebody sang about one in a song way back when.
Of course, that tune is “Helpless,” which has my vote for Neil Young’s finest composition. It remains intriguingly confined to the backburner throughout Jonathan Demme’s Neil Young Journeys, bubbling up a few notes at a time during the sardonically funny interstitial between-song location footage before again receding back into the ambient noise, over and over again.
This is Demme’s third feature-length Neil Young concert documentary since 2006, and some folks are beginning to wonder if he might be developing a problem. I don’t see it quite that way, if only because Demme shoots live music better than any other living filmmaker, and Young is such a multi-faceted, often confounding artist that no single picture could capture his mercurial mood swings and constant shape-shifting. Count me in the camp that wouldn’t mind another Young/Demme movie every two or three years from here on out.
The occasion for this picture is a performance (actually two) by Neil at Toronto’s Massey Hall, where he so famously played on the cusp of solo superstardom in 1971 (an event that brought about yet another Neil Young concert film, albeit one of the few not directed by Demme.) The sort-of-homecoming here is less ballyhooed and spartanly staged. It’s just Neil in a ripped old hat with an electric guitar, an organ and a mountain of amplifiers that he somehow seems supernaturally able to distort into an entire band’s worth of unholy racket. The song selection alternates between 2010’s Le Noise and a grab bag of Young’s ’70s chestnuts. As typical with Neil Young—which is what separates him from most boomer classic rock artists cashing in on greatest hits tours for a quick buck—the past and the present are presented side by side, all part of the same flowing continuum.
Demme characteristically avoids the audience. They always seem like such unnecessary interruptions in his concert pictures, as he keeps the camera rooted close to the stage, devoid of those de rigeur crowd shots that signal the cinema audience to share the crowd’s approbation. Demme’s always trying to get as close as he can to where the music is being made, and in Neil Young Journeys, he might have outdone himself and finally gotten a bit too close.
Shot with a spare handful of digital cameras placed sometimes not-so-strategically onstage, Journeys is about as up close and personal as such documents get. There’s a camera perched inside the pump organ for “After the Gold Rush,” and most intrusive is a tiny digital device mounted on the singer’s microphone, providing a larynx-eye view of “Down By The River.” Unlike the stately, artful proscenium arch Demme employed for 2006’s transcendent Neil Young Heart of Gold, this picture is rough-hewn and looks caught on the fly. Shots stretch on for much longer than one might expect in a concert picture, generally favoring a single off-kilter close-up and sticking to it for the entire song.
Neil Young Journeys is contextualized by a deliberately ramshackle cross-Canada drive, with Demme riding shotgun in the singer’s 1956 Crown Vic. More affable and less guarded than usually glimpsed on film, Young cruises through his hometown of Omemee, offering a couple of amusing anecdotes about pet chickens and a bully who made him eat tar. Mostly he’s pointing at empty spaces and talking about things that are no longer there. The passage of time weighs hard on both the songs and the man, but he carries it all well. Dryly witty, yet weirdly melancholic, these moments anchor the picture into an emotional space more wistful than more traditional concert pictures.
Demme tries to rescue “Ohio” from 40 years of classic rock radio rotation by cutting to footage of the Kent State massacre and making sure to name every one of those four dead. It’s an admirable attempt to put an overplayed song back into proper context, but the stylistic device feels at odds with the movie’s otherwise Spartan technique.
Better is when, during a scalding “Hitchhiker,” Young quite accidentally hocks a loogie onto the microphone-camera. Demme shoots through the spit, for what feels like forever and a day.