Judge Russell Engebretson is reminded of a wise old saying: "Inside every old man, there's a young man wondering what the hell happened."
Neil Young: Heart of Gold, documented by Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme, is an extraordinary musical portrait of an artist's soul—and a must-have concert film for any serious music fan.
In the summer of 2005, Neil Young staged a pair of shows at the Ryman Auditorium—former home of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn.—and collaborated with director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) to produce a live recreation of the recently released album Prairie Wind.
Facts of the Case
The first few minutes of the movie includes brief interviews with many of Neil Young's bandmates and a few shots of various Nashville locations. Then it's right on to the concert footage.
Young, surrounding himself with dozens of musicians and singers, worked with Demme and his film crew over the course of two nights to capture a concert that explores issues of aging and mortality. Neil Young's father—afflicted with dementia—had recently died. In the spring of 2005, Young was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm. He wrote and recorded all but two of the tracks for the Prairie Wind CD a few days prior to his scheduled surgery. By August of the same year, he was recreating the album on stage in Nashville.
The concert film was an attempt to chronicle the deeply personal Prairie Wind tracks in a live venue. The resultant film is a testament to Neil Young's musical genius and Jonathan Demme's ability to get at the essence of a musical performance. Of course, the amazing lineup of veteran musicians onstage with Young was also crucial to the success of the live show. The players and vocalists are listed below:
Emmylou Harris (guitar, vocals), Ben Keith (pedal steel guitar, dobro, vibraphone, lap steel guitar), Spooner Oldham (B3 organ, acoustic piano, vibraphone), Rick Rosas (bass guitar), Karl T. Himmel (drums, percussion), Chad Cromwell (drums, percussion), Wayne Jackson (horn arranger, trumpet), Pegi Young (guitar, vocals), Grant Boatwright (guitar, electric guitar, backup vocals), Diana Dewitt (guitar, autoharp, backup vocals), Gary Pigg (guitar, vocals), Anthony Crawford (guitar, vocals), Tom McGinley (baritone sax), Jimmy Sharp (trombone), Clinton Gregory (fiddle, vocals), Larry Cragg (trombone, fiddle, vocals, banjo, guitar, broom), Fisk University Jubilee Singers (vocals), The Nashville String Machine (fretless strings).
The first nine songs performed are from the Prairie Wind CD; the final nine songs are culled from numerous albums, reaching all the way back to Neil Young's first solo record and his days as a member of Buffalo Springfield.
Songs from the set were presented in the following order:
• "The Painter"
Neil Young: Heart of Gold was not just a straightforward capture of a live concert. Director Jonathan Demme carefully planned every phase of the film. To begin with, Manuel Cuevas—in the couture business for more than 50 years—designed special costumes for every musician. Cuevas created costumes for The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Dolly Parton, and Johnny Cash. His best-known costume is probably Elvis Presley's iconic, rhinestone studded, white-fringed jumpsuit. Director of Photography Ellen Kuras (I Shot Andy Warhol) fashioned a unique set of lighting schemes for each song and meticulously framed each shot during rehearsals. Director Demme had eight cameras set far back from the stage so as not to distract the musicians as they played (Neil Young is known to dislike cameramen running about on stage during his performances); a single Steadicam operator was on the stage for a handful of crucial close-up shots. The backdrop flats—stylized paintings of a country home interior and stained glass reproductions of the Ryman Auditorium's windows—were designed to give a dreamlike texture to the film. Demme said the entire film was an attempt to draw the audience into a state akin to a dream, to enfold the viewer into Neil Young's theme of life-as-a-dream (most starkly revealed in his piano driven rendition of "It's A Dream"). The spare backdrops are also in keeping with Young's penchant for minimal stage props.
I've seen Neil Young live a few times ("Time Fades Away," "Rust Never Sleeps," and "Ragged Glory" tours). The shows I've seen were stripped-down affairs with all the emphasis on the music. The pared-down stage show may be partly due to his antipathy to corporate sponsorship—an admirable but tough stance to take, considering the high cost of touring. In any case, this show, although elaborately staged and filmed, retains the deceptively simple look of his typical tour.
The exacting attention to detail extended to the final audio mixes. The concert mix was given a final mix down in the studio by sound engineers under the strict supervision of Young (assisted by Demme). Once again, what appears on screen as a spontaneous, unrehearsed outpouring of music was a carefully constructed, artfully-crafted set piece.
For this film, Young is more talkative than usual. He introduces several of the songs with stories of his childhood and his close relationship with his father. He shares his thoughts about a few of the songs that cast them in a new light. The acoustically-driven set (no grunge or feedback electric leads this time around) is conducive to the introspective mood.
Neil Young is a natural-born storyteller and his best songs are reminiscences that move—as most good stories do—from the specific to the general. Many of us can identify with the ravages of Alzheimer's disease that have taken away the mind of a parent or grandparent when we hear him sing about his father in "Prairie Wind." More generally, the song is about the lot of all mortals, the fading away of memory, and passion that awaits us all. Any thoughtful person who has fewer years left ahead of them than behind will connect with that particular song at a gut level. It is Neil Young's gift that he can communicate complicated emotions with such seeming ease—a few chord strums, a driving rhythm, a simple melody.
The only bonus on the first disc is a silly poke at Elvis entitled "He Was The King." It's a funny song, but I can understand why it was left out of the movie. It would have provided more comic relief than necessary and would have been out of synch with the meditative mood of the set. The second bonus disc sports about an hour and a half of special features. There are extended interviews with band members; a short discussion of Neil Young's guitars by "guitar technician" Larry Cragg (for you guitar fans out there, they included Hank William's Martin in its original case, a vintage Martin D45 that "Heart Of Gold" was written on, and a modified 1953 Les Paul dubbed "Old Black"—Young's main electric); a 1971 clip from The Johnny Cash Show with Young performing "Needle And The Damage Done," and more interviews with Neil Young and Jonathan Demme. The best featurette is the 38-minute "Rehearsal Diaries" with commentary by director and producer Jonathan Demme. The featurette is split into three parts: "Soundcheck Studios," "Ryman Auditorium," and "Day of the Performance." It's a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how the movie was crafted from start to finish and how serious Neil Young was about getting things musically right in rehearsals.
Concerning the DVD, the picture appears slightly soft with noticeable grain at times, probably from the use of close-ups from distantly placed cameras, but the picture has a natural, filmic look about it that is very pleasing. The graininess, when it is present, does not interfere with enjoyment of the picture. The ever-so-slight softness perfectly complements Demme's intention to reproduce a dreamlike state for the film. The color pallette on the DVD transfer is close to impeccable, just gorgeous. As for the soundtrack, I cringe to consider what Neil Young thinks of the sound, as he has always been unhappy with the compact disc and only embraced digital sound with the advent of high resolution DVD-Audio (which ironically is an abandoned format). Still, the DTS surround is the best choice for a glossy format, which really shines on this DVD. As usual, DTS is the preferred choice over the Dolby Digital 5.1 (and there's no need to even discuss the lackluster Dolby 2.0 soundtrack).
In one of Jonathan Demme's interviews with Neil Young as they cruised around Nashville, Young said something I found especially poignant, which in a way summed up the whole gestalt of the Prairie Wind concert with its mixture of world weariness, guarded hope, and simple wonder at being alive. Young said, "I'm getting smaller and smaller. When I was 20, I was huge. At 60, I don't feel so huge anymore. Now I feel like a leaf on a river, just floating along. I feel like I'm not connected to myself anymore; I'm more connected to what's holding me up."
I don't believe Jonathan Demme—or any other director—will ever match the glory of Stop Making Sense, the best rock concert movie committed to film. But that doesn't take a thing away from his latest picture, which is perhaps the flip side to the youthful Talking Heads' magnum opus. Neil Young: Heart of Gold is a contemplation on winding down, putting things in order, and getting aboard that train with your final ticket to ride. And if all that sounds too morose, it's also a toe-tapping, rock 'n rolling, folk singing extravaganza with a group of some of the finest musicians ever to grace a DVD.
If you're looking for a verdict here, you didn't read my rave review. No way it's guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Bonus Song: Prairie Wind Song/"He Was The King"
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