More Ragged Glories: Neil Young and Jonathan Demme Discuss Their Third Concert Film

Today's Weekly features a chat with director Jonathan Demme about his third music documentary on rock god Neil Young.

Jonathan Demme Gets His Emotion On with Neil Young Journeys

But Village Voice Media's Aaron Hillis doubled down, interviewing Demme and Young together, after they took a stroll through Manhattan. That piece, as well as the trailer to the film opening Friday in Irvine, follow after the jump . . .

By Aaron Hillis

Not to
knock films as fantastic as his Rachel Getting Married, The Silence of the Lambs, and Something Wild, but there's something wilder–or at least, more directly stimulating
and pure–about Jonathan Demme's live-performance docs. The 68-year-old
auteur immortalized a Talking Heads show (and David Byrne's oversized
suit jacket) in Stop Making Sense, cinematically enlarged a cozy Robyn Hitchcock set in Storefront
, and discovered a like-minded collaborator in the titular
troubadour of 2006's Neil Young: Heart of Gold and 2009's Neil Young Trunk Show. Teaming with the Canadian legend again, Demme and five other camera
operators expertly capture an intense, pared-down 2011 solo show at
Toronto's Massey Hall in the absorbing new Neil Young Journeys.

used to joke about going for a trilogy,” Demme says, he and Young
in good spirits after having returned from a stroll in the warm Manhattan
breeze. “But we just do them one at a time, and it's a de facto
trilogy because there's three of them.”

between these songs–the set list emphasizing Young's then-recent,
33rd studio album, Le Noise, but not without perennial faves like “After the Gold Rush”
and “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)”–Journeys becomes both
a noun and a verb. Tooling around with Demme in a 1956 Crown Victoria,
scenes of Young's two-hour road trip from his northern Ontario hometown
of Omemee to the concert hall is full of wistfully remembered childhood
characters and milestones: idyllic fishing holes, a prankster named
Goof Whitman, his famous literary father being the only white character
in a minstrel show full of Irish-Canadians in blackface.

the avuncular raconteur, Young enthralls with even a throwaway observation
about how his brother, Bob–also en route, in the '91 Cadillac ahead–drives
at precisely the right speed. Such moments feel like they might one
day be spun into lyrics.

All this
reminiscing suggests a question: What means more to the bard's artistic
output, reflecting on the past or keeping up with the present? “Tomorrow's
the most important thing to me,” Young casually responds, almost
as if songwriting in real time. “Today's second. Today's good.
Tomorrow could be better.”

behind a piano or sitting with a guitar and harmonica, Young doesn't
need a backup band to take control of the room–or a movie theater.
Certainly it helps that, as a hardcore audiophile, he developed an optimized
sound system named Pono, which delivers the music at a higher-than-standard
digital resolution, meaning some auditoriums will need an upgrade to
fully honor the robust bass and enhanced clarity. The other advantage
is having an expert filmmaker on hand who has long developed practical
techniques to document live concerts and still make us feel like we
were there.

offers up his tricks and strategies: “Don't show the audience that
was present while we're filming because that makes us feel a little
secondary. This movie's for the moviegoers. Cut as little as possible,
and cut only when it's important. Trust the music. The big, fun part
is trying to crawl inside the performance and come up with a cinematic
vehicle that is organic to the themes and stories that Neil's telling.
You can get lost in this stuff. It's very exciting.”

screen and odd camera angles from as far away as the mixing board squash
any opportunities for visual monotony, with the film's most lyrical
bout of spontaneity occurring when a tiny mic-mounted camera aimed at
Young's grizzled jaw is hit with flying spittle during “Hitchhiker,”
producing a lo-fi kaleidoscopic filter that fits the “unhinged”
song, as Demme calls it.

He elaborates:
Declan Quinn, our director of photography, said we're going to
get a close-up that no one's ever gotten before, of Neil's face, without
the microphone in the foreground. The nut had loosened a little bit,
so Declan's first thought was 'Aw, shit!' But I said: 'Wait a minute.
Look. That's the mouth, the portal. The voice comes out of there; the
story comes out of there.' When we saw the spit, we knew we couldn't
use it a lot, but I was confident we could find a good place for it.”

The crowd
naturally erupts when Young breaks into a surly, sad rendition of “Ohio,”
which would still be blistering even without the names and photos of
the 1970 Kent State shooting victims superimposed on-screen. After who
knows how many performances, how does he still muster up such immediacy
and anger in a four-decade-old protest song?

probably be more amazed at how little I've done the song,” Young
replies. “I didn't think it was right to do it over and over again.
This tour, this collection of songs, this presentation told me that
it was a good fit.”

just heard it a million times,” Demme says–whether Young has
played it often or not. The discussion drifts into the self-awareness
of being filmed while performing. Young swears he doesn't even remember
the cameras that night, and though he's “looked at it all the way
through,” he feels it's difficult to watch the film because, well,
it's just him. The idea of self-critique is particularly unappealing
to such a seasoned performer.

know what's wrong with it,” Young says, “but I knew what was
wrong while I was doing it. I try to block that out of my mind. Nothing's
perfect, it's just what it is. I don't dwell on it and try to stay with
the meaning of the songs in the moment.

interrupts: “Just watching those clips last night with you, it's
like your outpouring is so intense, I could see how it would almost
be embarrassing for you, seeing yourself being so emotional. Not the
quality of the singing or the guitar playing, but just, wow.”

Young murmurs under his breath. “You don't want to watch that.”

*  *  *

Neil Young Journeys was directed by Jonathan Demme; and stars Neil Young. Rated PG. Opens Fri. at Edwards University Town Center 6, Irvine. Click here for show times.

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