More Ragged Glories: Neil Young and Jonathan Demme Discuss Their Third Concert Film

Categories: Film
Today's Weekly features a chat with director Jonathan Demme about his third music documentary on rock god Neil Young.

Jonathan Demme Gets His Emotion On with Neil Young Journeys

But Village Voice Media's Aaron Hillis doubled down, interviewing Demme and Young together, after they took a stroll through Manhattan. That piece, as well as the trailer to the film opening Friday in Irvine, follow after the jump . . .

By Aaron Hillis

Not to knock films as fantastic as his Rachel Getting Married, The Silence of the Lambs, and Something Wild, but there's something wilder--or at least, more directly stimulating and pure--about Jonathan Demme's live-performance docs. The 68-year-old auteur immortalized a Talking Heads show (and David Byrne's oversized suit jacket) in Stop Making Sense, cinematically enlarged a cozy Robyn Hitchcock set in Storefront Hitchcock, and discovered a like-minded collaborator in the titular troubadour of 2006's Neil Young: Heart of Gold and 2009's Neil Young Trunk Show. Teaming with the Canadian legend again, Demme and five other camera operators expertly capture an intense, pared-down 2011 solo show at Toronto's Massey Hall in the absorbing new Neil Young Journeys.

"We used to joke about going for a trilogy," Demme says, he and Young in good spirits after having returned from a stroll in the warm Manhattan breeze. "But we just do them one at a time, and it's a de facto trilogy because there's three of them."

Intercut between these songs--the set list emphasizing Young's then-recent, 33rd studio album, Le Noise, but not without perennial faves like "After the Gold Rush" and "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)"--Journeys becomes both a noun and a verb. Tooling around with Demme in a 1956 Crown Victoria, scenes of Young's two-hour road trip from his northern Ontario hometown of Omemee to the concert hall is full of wistfully remembered childhood characters and milestones: idyllic fishing holes, a prankster named Goof Whitman, his famous literary father being the only white character in a minstrel show full of Irish-Canadians in blackface.

Ever the avuncular raconteur, Young enthralls with even a throwaway observation about how his brother, Bob--also en route, in the '91 Cadillac ahead--drives at precisely the right speed. Such moments feel like they might one day be spun into lyrics.

All this reminiscing suggests a question: What means more to the bard's artistic output, reflecting on the past or keeping up with the present? "Tomorrow's the most important thing to me," Young casually responds, almost as if songwriting in real time. "Today's second. Today's good. Tomorrow could be better."

Onstage, behind a piano or sitting with a guitar and harmonica, Young doesn't need a backup band to take control of the room--or a movie theater. Certainly it helps that, as a hardcore audiophile, he developed an optimized sound system named Pono, which delivers the music at a higher-than-standard digital resolution, meaning some auditoriums will need an upgrade to fully honor the robust bass and enhanced clarity. The other advantage is having an expert filmmaker on hand who has long developed practical techniques to document live concerts and still make us feel like we were there.

Demme offers up his tricks and strategies: "Don't show the audience that was present while we're filming because that makes us feel a little secondary. This movie's for the moviegoers. Cut as little as possible, and cut only when it's important. Trust the music. The big, fun part is trying to crawl inside the performance and come up with a cinematic vehicle that is organic to the themes and stories that Neil's telling. You can get lost in this stuff. It's very exciting."

Split screen and odd camera angles from as far away as the mixing board squash any opportunities for visual monotony, with the film's most lyrical bout of spontaneity occurring when a tiny mic-mounted camera aimed at Young's grizzled jaw is hit with flying spittle during "Hitchhiker," producing a lo-fi kaleidoscopic filter that fits the "unhinged" song, as Demme calls it.

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