Sony // 2011 // 87 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 14th, 2012
A look into the heart and soul of an artist.
In recent years, director Martin Scorsese has alternated between feature films and documentaries, offering portraits of The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and George Harrison between his Oscar-nominated dramas. Director Jonathan Demme has taken a similar approach, directing a handful of documentaries about such diverse musical figures as Neil Young (in the 2006 film Neil Young: Heart of Gold), Neil Young (in 2009's Neil Young Trunk Show) and Neil Young (in the new offering Neil Young Journeys). While one may begin to wonder just how much longer Demme can continue to document Young's life and music before he runs out of material, Neil Young Journeys by no means feels like a leftover. It's a lovely concert film that fuses intimate, heartfelt musical performances with quiet recollections of the rocker's early years.
The format is exceptionally simple: between a dozen or so solo performances of new and old Young songs (most of the new stuff is from the exceptional 2010 album Le Noise), Demme follows the singer/songwriter as he revisits his childhood hometown. Young hops into his 1956 Crown Victoria and drives Demme down a series of relatively peaceful Ontario roads, telling stories of his youth as he goes. "Over there, I once blew up a turtle by sticking a firecracker up its ass," Young confesses, "So my environmental roots don't run very deep." He recalls the tale of the time one of his friends persuaded him to eat tar ("He said it was harsh at first but that it would turn into chocolate in my mouth,"), talks a bit about his musical preferences and his fondness of cars. It's nothing particularly profound, just unfiltered anecdotes from a seasoned musician bathing in nostalgia.
The film wouldn't amount to much if the conversation scenes were at its center, but they're really only present as window dressing for the musical performances. For the most part, we're getting the wounded, introspective Young this time around, as he masterfully works his way through gems like "Ohio," "Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)," "Love and War" and "Out of the Blue." Demme often frames Young in intense close-ups, observing his tormented face rather than pulling back to observe what he's doing with the guitar or keyboard. Sometimes the shots are so intimate that Young leaves large dollops of spit on the camera (which might be just a shade too intimate for my tastes, but your mileage may vary).
Demme occasionally tries a bit of creative editing to spice things up, which proves a hit-and-miss approach. The manner in which he splices footage of the Kent State shootings with Young's performance of "Ohio" seems a little too on-the-nose (but then again we're not exactly dealing with a singer/songwriter known for his subtlety). However, when Demme interrupts an experimental piano coda with a brief clip of Young tinkering on the piano as a toddler, it produces a brief moment of movie magic. Most of the time, the director is content to sit back and watch one of the greats do his thing with skill and passion.
The DVD transfer is satisfactory enough, with impressive detail and depth throughout. There's a bit of crush on occasion during some of the darker moments, but it's not much of an issue. The concert footage in particular looks quite sturdy. The Dolby 5.1 Surround track isn't quite stunning, but it gets the job done well enough and captures both the intimate shadings and raucous feedback of the musical performances. For those interested in some slightly meatier conversation, the supplements have a lot of good stuff to offer. "Journey to Slamdance: A Conversation with Neil Young and Jonathan Demme" is a great half-hour chat with the director and central subject of the film, while "92Y Talks with Neil Young and Jonathan Demme" offers another half-hour of the same (there's a bit of overlap, but not too much). However, the brief "Making Journeys" is a disposable EPK-style featurette that can be skipped.
Neil Young Journeys is neither essential nor particularly revelatory, but it's an appealing viewing experience that spotlights some excellent Young tunes. It's worth a look.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated PG