Jonathan Demme Gets His Emotion On With 'Neil Young Journeys'
A cynical old reporter, loath to show emotion, fights back sobs and tears in his seat in a private screening room. Thank God for darkness. And booming surround sound.
What caused the waterworks was a small but powerful part of Jonathan Demme's new Neil Young Journeys, which completes a trilogy of performance documentaries the director of Philadelphia, Silence of the Lambs and Stop Making Sense has made on the folk-country-rock god.
Alone onstage at Massey Hall, the Toronto venue that capped his 2011 solo world tour, Young sings and strums his guitar with new urgency to an old song, "Ohio," which Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young recorded a few weeks after the Kent State massacre of May 4, 1970. As unarmed university students protested Richard Nixon's announcement that the U.S. was invading Cambodia, Ohio National Guardsman sprayed the campus with 67 rounds in 13 seconds, killing four students and wounding nine others. One was left paralyzed for life.
The musical performance is haunting, but Demme amps the emotion to 11 with archival footage that first has you reliving the tragedy, then getting angry about the injustice all over again, and finally . . . well, let's just say you should pack tissues.
The moving tribute to the late Allison B. Krause and William Knox Schroeder, who were 19 when they were mowed down, and Jeffrey Glenn Miller and Sandra Lee Scheuer, who were 20, comes pretty early in Neil Young Journeys, so early that I asked Demme at a press roundtable in Beverly Hills a couple of weeks ago if he thought about positioning "Ohio" near the end of the flick to build the emotion up to it.
"No," Demme answered politely. He looked relaxed in his bright-blue lounge shirt, khaki slacks, and curly salt-and-pepper hair. "I wanted it near the beginning to show we are not messing around. Once you see that, you're in it."
What you're in is a truly effective motion picture, one that audiences hopefully will not write off because Demme already cranked out Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006) and Neil Young Trunk Show (2009)—let alone the Netflixistance of Jim Jarmusch's Year of the Horse (1997) and, as his pseudonym Bernard Shakey, Young's own Rust Never Sleeps (1979), Greendale (2003) and CSNY/Déjá Vu (2008).
Demme made it clear that when it comes to his own filmography, each Young documentary presented "a great opportunity" for what, in his mind, are very separate sides of the artist.
While working in 2005 on Prairie Wind, a valentine to country and western music and one of the great later albums of Young's 40-year career, the artist was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm. Heart of Gold was made a year later, in the same town where the album was recorded, Nashville. Special costumes were made specifically for the performance, which was not part of a tour but specially arranged for the movie.
A lifelong fan who first met Young after convincing him to write the title track to Philadelphia (earning the singer/songwriter an Academy Award nomination), Demme was watching Young and his band performing during 2007's Chrome Dreams II tour when it struck the filmmaker how "visually exciting" the live show was. They would collaborate on Trunk Show, which was shot at Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania.
Once that was in the can, the pair started talking trilogy. Watching Young perform during the 2011 solo world tour to promote his 34th album, 2010's Le Noise, Demme was inspired.
"I was so moved when I saw that show," he recalled, explaining he felt the previous films adequately captured the "rich relationship" Young has with band mates onstage. Seeing Young solo, Demme was struck by the "profound energy" the artist generates alone.
But he knew they'd need a hook to move beyond just another concert movie. When he figured out Massey Hall, the site of Young's 1971 concert captured brilliantly on Live at Massey Hall 1971, is only a few hours from "that little town in North Ontario" on the song "Helpless," a gimmick—for lack of a more tactful word—for Neil Young Journeys was born.
The film intersperses Massey Hall performances of classics and newer cuts with footage of Young behind the wheel of his trusty 1956 Crown Victoria, serving as a tour guide to his Canadian hometown of Omemee, where there's a school named after his author and sportswriter father, Scott Young.
Besides being a musician, singer/songwriter, gearhead, philanthropist and environmentalist, Young loves big, old, American cars. He's married the latter passion with the international search for a viable alternative fuel source, embodied in the LincVolt ElectroCruiser, a 1959 Lincoln Continental Convertible Young and his team are developing into a self-propelled vehicle. But for Neil Young Journeys, the Crown Vic got the nod to motor from Omemee to Massey.
Known at times as brooding—the fault of that furrowed brow over disapproving bug eyes—Young is a flipping Chatty Cathy as he regales his passenger with tales about growing up with chickens, stream-bed frogs and his big brother Bob, who steers a lead car up ahead. You don't have to be a diehard to be drawn in by ol' Neil's folksy charm.
But make no mistake: Watching and hearing him play is the main attraction.
"That bottom bass . . ." says Demme, still shaking his head at the unforgettable sound. "I knew it would be wonderful if we could capture that for moviegoers."
The fact that all the layers of sound are coming from one man's fingers and achingly soulful voice is amazing to behold, at least "once you realize it's not a mistake," as Demme says with a snicker.
The music accentuates poems Young sings about love, loss, and slights made now and then. Demme comes up with neat tricks to capture the sound and performance fury, including what can best be described as a chin-and-throat cam.
Asked what first attracted him to the musician, Demme paused before answering.
"Neil Young's music and songs have spoken to what it is like to be a white male from his generation over the years," he finally says. "What it is like to be his age—he speaks for that. His music is almost like a mirror turned inward.
"I think he's a genius. You have to look globally at the club he is in when it comes to what he has contributed to the world. I cherish our friendship."
This article appeared in print as "'Ohio' Calling: Jonathan Demme and Neil Young revisit tragedy movingly in Neil Young Journeys."
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