Neil Young: Heart of Gold
Director: Jonathan Demme
Young, Emmylou Harris, Ben Keith, Spooner Oldham, Rick Rosas, Karl Himmel,
Chad Cromwell, and Pegi Young
The Music Box's #4 concert recording of 2006
First Appeared in The Music Box, July 2006, Volume 13, #7
Written by John Metzger
In March 2005, shortly after being diagnosed with a potentially fatal brain aneurysm, Neil Young flew into Nashville where he quickly wrote and recorded the bulk of the song cycle that became his latest endeavor Prairie Wind. A few months later, his father passed away after struggling in recent years with dementia brought about by the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s not surprising, then, that the new material dealt with issues of life, death, love, and loss or that these same themes permeate Neil Young: Heart of Gold, Jonathan Demme’s chronicle of the album’s world premiere at Nashville’s storied Ryman Auditorium in August 2005. Considering that he built his directorial career around the success of Stop Making Sense, an electrifying encapsulation of a performance by Talking Heads, it’s safe to say that Demme is no stranger to making stylish concert films that resonate with the equivalent intensity of being in the house. By once again allowing the music to speak for itself, he successfully transformed Neil Young: Heart of Gold into another brilliant depiction of the power that art can wield.
Right from the opening shots, which merge images of Nashville with interview segments that provide a framework for the film’s emotional content, Neil Young: Heart of Gold exudes an air of cinematic importance, the full sense of which becomes crystal clear once the curtain literally is drawn back to reveal a wide angle view of Young and his backing band. Rather than immediately zooming in for a close-up, Demme opted to linger towards the back of the auditorium, and his slow-motion crawl towards the stage conveys the impression that one is voyeuristically glimpsing an artist’s most intimate moments. Employing eight stationary cameras and a single Steadicam, Demme avoided making the sort of frantic cuts that would have interrupted the show’s deliberative ambience. Instead, he gave each song the time that it needed to blossom into its own revealing scene, each of which highlights the manner in which the musicians worked together to give the material its distinctive texture. Essentially, Young and Demme are in perfect synch, and the understated, plainspoken visuals beautifully capture the subtleties of the performance — the manner in which Young glances skyward during The Painter as he sings the line "some of them are with me now;" Emmylou Harris’ adoringly surprised reaction to Young’s sniffing and howling like a hound dog during Old King; and how the gentle sweep of a broom is turned into a percussive backdrop for Harvest Moon — thereby enhancing both the sentimental and the communal facets of the proceedings.
Musically, Young presented the entirety of Prairie Wind in its proper running order — He Was the King, the lone missing tune, was delivered too raggedly to fit within the scope of the film, though it is included as a bonus track — before he delved into carefully selected pieces from his back catalog. Taken in total, all of the songs fit together to form a give and take among generations that move not only from father to son to daughter, but also — considering that Young plays Hank Williams’ old guitar and is backed, in part, by the Fisk University Jubilee Singers — from the audiences that filled the Ryman during its early days as a place of spiritual revival to those who came during its incarnation as the Mother Church of Country Music to those who were in attendance during the filming of Neil Young: Heart of Gold. On Far from Home, for example, Young took comfort in learning to appreciate the words of his father, while Here for You was a bittersweet message to his own daughter, who recently had entered young adulthood. With his full band stretched across the front of the stage (and mostly donning acoustic guitars), he gave Comes a Time a gentle, buoyant lilt that was reminiscent of Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s Teach Your Children, and by ominously pitting the Memphis horns against his own anguished cry on the title track to Prairie Wind, he conjured his dad’s defiant struggle to maintain his identity in the face of a deteriorating mental state.
In Neil Young: Heart of Gold’s opening sequence of interview clips, Pegi Young describes the inception of Prairie Wind as her husband’s seeing his "life flashing before his eyes," and during the myriad of bonus featurettes, Demme states that he wanted the film to play like a "dream concert." At the end of his set, Young takes a moment to say thank you to his friends, his family, and his fans during a heartfelt rendition of One of These Days. As the final round of applause dissipates, he is left sitting in an empty auditorium where he delivers a ghostly rendition of The Old Laughing Lady before quietly packing up his gear and walking away. It’s here within this closing scene where the visions of two master craftsmen meet, and what they create is a simplistic but lasting image that gracefully speaks volumes about the fleeting nature of existence.
Of Further Interest...
Heart of Gold is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box