'Heart of Gold' carried by Young's 24-karat music


February 17, 2006


"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 poignant words.

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 "Philadelphia."

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.

After the 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.