"This old guitar ...
been up and down the country roads / It's brought a tear and a smile,"
Neil Young sings in one of the most moving songs from his 2005 album
"Prairie Wind," which is performed live in its entirety as the artist strums
an acoustic guitar once owned by Hank Williams during the new concert film,
"Neil Young: Heart of Gold."
"It's seen its share of
dreams and hopes / And never went out of style / The more I play it, the
better it sounds."
In a career that has
been full of them, the legendary musician has never sung truer or more
Young has already given
us one of the best concert movies in rock history, 1979's "Rust Never
Sleeps," as well as one of the most ambitious mixed-media musicals, 2003's
"Greendale." And the director of this new effort, Jonathan Demme, is
responsible for two more unforgettable concert movies, psychedelic
troubadour Robyn Hitchcock's "Storefront Hitchcock" (1998) and Talking
Heads' "Stop Making Sense" (1984), as well as some very memorable feature
films that aren't part of my beat, like "The Silence of the Lambs" and
It should surprise no
one, then, that "Neil Young: Heart of Gold" is an instant classic, one of
the most musically sensitive and emotionally gripping movies of its kind,
and as fitting a tribute to one aspect of Young's genius -- the acoustic
country and folk maverick, as opposed to the fuzz- and feedback-drenched
rocker -- as any artist could ever hope for.
Last spring, the now
60-year-old Young was diagnosed with a potentially fatal brain aneurysm. In
the weeks before undergoing surgery, he threw himself into writing an
intensely personal new album, "Prairie Wind," that he viewed as the last
installment of a trilogy with 1972's "Harvest" and 1992's "Harvest Moon,"
and which he recorded in Nashville with many of the same lifelong friends
and backing musicians, including pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith,
keyboardist Spooner Oldham, bassist Rick Rosas and backing vocalists Emmylou
Harris and Pegi Young, Neil's wife of 28 years.
singer-songwriter's successful surgery and just before the release of
"Prairie Wind" last September, Demme filmed Young performing "The Painter,"
"Falling Off the Face of the Earth," "This Old Guitar" and the rest of the
new album onstage during two nights at Nashville's gorgeous Ryman
Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry, with the musicians
who'd recorded it, including the Fisk University Jubilee Singers and the
Nashville String Machine.
The set at those
concerts concluded with a sampling of older Young songs -- among them "I Am
a Child," "Old Man," "Comes a Time" and "The Old Laughing Lady" -- and
though they were written over a three-decade span, they combined to form a
sweeping and linear narrative about a man standing at the crossroads of life
and death, looking back and considering the things he values most dearly.
In the wrong hands, this
could have been unbearably maudlin material; while many adore Martin
Scorsese's "The Last Waltz," I've always hated its pathos and pretension,
and Scorsese was simply eulogizing a band (The Band), not holding a living
wake for a human being. But for all of the melancholy nostalgia in Young's
music -- he's been singing about being an old man since the start of his
career, when he was a twentysomething founder of Buffalo Springfield -- his
passionate performances have always been about the joys of the here and now,
and he's one of the few artists of his generation who's as vital and vibrant
a creative force today as he was in the '60s and '70s.
"We are living 'the good
old days' right now," the movie asserts as its unspoken theme, and Demme
once again proves himself to be one of our most musical filmmakers,
perfectly in tune with the sounds being created around him. There is
absolutely nothing flashy here: After short introductory interviews with the
musicians about their history with Young and the emotional creation of
"Prairie Wind," the film never leaves the stage at the Ryman. The cameras
focus almost exclusively on the performers, with nary a shot of the crowd or
anything else to distract us from the wonderful music.
As a result, Young is
the "star" in name only: The most fascinating "characters" are the songs,
which seem to possess the musicians as they play them, and the drama is
entirely unspoken, comprised of knowing smiles, playful glimpses and loving
nods between artists who show us that making music with kindred souls is an
experience as transcendent and emotionally fulfilling as making love.
For that reason, "Neil
Young: Heart of Gold" is ultimately a celebratory film, not a sad one, and
it is a movie that no music lover should miss.