A review of Neil Young: Heart of Gold

The film is directed in a restrained, unostentatious manner, with the camera serving the music as it rests on Young, Emmylou Harris (a guest artist here) and the musicians in the band. The camera’s focus is straight and direct. It omits a lot: we don’t see the audience, despite hearing their applause and appreciation; we are the audience.

Reviewed by Paul Kane

Neil Young: Heart of Gold
Directed by Jonathan Demme
With Neil Young and band, Emmylou Harris and the Fisk University Jubilee Singers
Paramount Classics, 2005
Running Time: 104 minutes

Although Jonathan Demme’s documentary opens with interviews with Neil Young and some of the musicians in his band, this is predominantly a portrait of the artist in concert. The concert footage was recorded in August 2005, during two days of performances at the Ryman Auditorium (for about 30 years the home of the Grand Ole Opry) in Nashville, not long after Young had undergone brain surgery. He performs songs from his new album Prairie Wind as well some earlier, well-known songs such as “Harvest Moon”, “The Needle and the Damage Done” and (of course) “Heart of Gold”.

The film is directed in a restrained, unostentatious manner, with the camera serving the music as it rests on Young, Emmylou Harris (a guest artist here) and the musicians in the band. The camera’s focus is straight and direct. It omits a lot: we don’t see the audience, despite hearing their applause and appreciation; we are the audience.

Demme, probably most famous for directing Silence of the Lambs, has made a couple of films like this before. His form in this area includes Stop Making Sense, a 1980s record of Talking Heads in concert (remember David Byrne’s big suit?) and Storefront Hitchcock, a concert film of Robyn Hitchcock made in 1998; and he has also directed many music videos in his time. Like these two previous films, Neil Young: Heart of Gold has the feel of being very much a labour of love, and indeed Demme has been a long-time admirer of Neil Young’s work. Their artistic paths have in fact crossed once before, when Young wrote the title song to accompany Philadelphia. It is actually Young’s demo of the song (rather than the polished Springsteen cover) that closes Philadelphia; Demme relates that, when he first heard it, he cried.

Young is one of the few visionaries in rock music, he has a substantial body of work behind him and, like Bob Dylan himself, he’s still making interesting music. As well as being a singer/songwriter, he and his band are astounding musicians, and there’s a real drive behind the playing here: the stage seems to shake and shudder at times. His performance is engaging, open, vulnerable – and often mesmerising. There’s a valedictory vibe to it too, and a sense of the transitory nature of things. “Some of my friends are here, others can’t be found”, Neil remarks at one point. The dead have always been a presence for Young, as songs such as “The Needle and the Damage Done” testify.

Young’s voice is such a beautiful instrument that it seems as though he can amplify and modify any emotion or thought at all. For this reason, his lyrics are best when they convey clear, direct emotion. Two of the songs from Prairie Wind especially stood out in this regard. “It’s a dream” includes the gorgeous lines :

Only a dream
And it’s fading now
Fading away
It’s only a dream
Just a memory without anywhere to stay.

These lines – and the song as a whole – reminded me of Wallace Stevens’ comment made in old age: “It is an illusion to believe we were ever alive.”

Another new song, “When God Made Me”, is deceptively simple and composed of a series of searching questions. It is subversive and challenging to believers and atheists alike. Here Young asks of God, “Did He give me the gift of vision / not knowing what I might see?” Of course, these read simply as words on a screen, without Young’s voice to give them life.

Neil Young: Heart of Gold is the next best thing to seeing this guy live. It is a film that captures Young’s presence, for us and for future generations. It is an unpretentious achievement of real distinction.

About the reviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at pkane853@yahoo.co.uk

Views All Time
Views All Time
766
Views Today
Views Today
1