|Following Every Dream: Neil Young and Jonathan Demme
by Collin Souter
On DVD June 13, 2006
During its theatrical run, Jonathan Demme’s concert film Neil Young Heart of Gold grossed $1.8 million. This doesn’t sound like a monumental achievement until you take into consideration the fact that your average concert film is lucky to gross $100,000 at the box office before the DVD comes out the following month. But like Demme’s groundbreaking Stop Making Sense and Storefront Hitchcock, Neil Young: Heart of Gold rises above the norm. It is the result of a collaboration between two artists with similar career paths. Both have achieved mainstream success utilizing their own unconventional approach to their craft, both are unique filmmakers and both have managed to rise above their critics by taking unpredictable turns and coming out on top. This particular film represents another career high for both artists. When the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, Jonathan Demme and Neil Young stopped by the Filmmaker’s Lodge to discuss the making of this film.
“The first time we collaborated, we had never met,” said Demme, referring to his 1993 drama Philadelphia. “I wanted the movie to start with a giant Neil Young guitar anthem to just relax all the homophobic guys in the audience who would go, ‘Okay, Neil Young is on board, I’m open now.’ We cut the opening sequence to (Young’s song) Southern Man. I was hoping to have Neil maybe compose the Southern Man of homophobia.
“This tape arrives and my wife and I listened to it and it was this very unanthemic, exquisitely written song called Philadelphia come on the speakers and we were sitting there crying and I thought, ‘we’re going to end this movie on this note. This is the perfect way to send people home.” He adds with a laugh: “But where’s our anthem?”
The following year, Demme pressed Young about doing a video. Young agreed to do a video for a song the song Change Your Mind, off the Sleeps With Angels LP. Young and the band showed up nine hours late, came in and said “We’re recording four songs today.” This ended up as The Complex Sessions (5 songs, 40 minutes), but it wasn’t until 2004 when Demme and Young would talk about collaborating again. “I saw (Young’s concert album and subsequent tour) Greendale in concert on the very first tour and loved it. At one point, Neil called me up and said ‘I’m interested in doing it as a movie, would you be interested?’”
Demme couldn’t, because he was starting pre-production on The Manchurian Candidate. Young went ahead and made the film himself.
“A lot of people know this,” Demme says. “But more people don’t, is that Neil is a major filmmakers in his own right. He has either directed or produced and has appeared in a number of movies.”
Regarding his first film, Human Highway (1982), the softspoken Young reminisced: “It was a lot of fun. I didn’t have much of an idea. I just wanted to make a movie about a day in the life of some bozos working in a gas station and at the end of the day the world ended. What happened that day? How unconcerned and unaware of everything everyone was, just standing around and worrying about fixing a car, and then BAM! It was a futuristic movie at the time. We had the gas prices at $2.65 a gallon. We were all laughing our asses off at that one. All the license plates were in Arabic.”
The time would come a year after Greendale when both were available and eager to collaborate. “I was just lucky,” says Young. “(Jonathan) called and said ‘I’m taking a year off and I wanna make a film.’ We practiced about 10 days to play the songs, to play them right. We were in Nashville. It was 105 outside, no air conditioning. Jonathan had a little crew there filming for the DVD. Of course, we can’t use it all, because I was swearing and carrying on embarrassingly. You get to know what an asshole I really am,” he says lightheartedly.
When asked about the differences between making Neil Young: Heart of Gold and the 1984 Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense, Demme says “I saw the Talking Heads show at the Hollywood Bowl. I went with Gary Goetzman. I just looked at it and I saw a movie there waiting to be filmed. David Byrne created a wonderful progression of songs with incredible lighting effects. I love the way he designed that tour to demonstrate how a big sound gets bigger as you bring one musician out one at a time. It told a certain kind of story.
“With Heart of Gold, the genesis was Neil creating images in my head by talking about it on the telephone. I received these lyrics and I would be like ‘my God, it’s a dream, this is so beautiful.’ And he would say something like, ‘yeah, well the reason I wrote that song is because my dad had dementia now and one of the most maddening things to me (Neal) is that there are a lot of places that we were supposed to go back to, places he would tell me about when I was a little kid and he created an image in my mind about these places and one day we were going to go see them and it never happened…’ And he found himself stuck and he’s never going to get to these places because his dad can’t remember anything, so a song is born. I guess that was Prairie Wind. And we talked about how dreamy life becomes as the years roll and life becomes dreamlike. That was the song It’s A Dream, which takes on that dreamy effect. All these images were popping in my head.”
The images in Demme’s head ultimately proved to be too grand for what the film called for. “I said ‘Well, we’ll do a concert, but we’ll probably film it against a blue screen. That way we can get all kinds of archival footage of trains on the prairies. We can go to Canada and interview people and have that going on… The more we talked, the more Neil talked about how much he loved these musicians he had collaborated with on this album, Prairie Wind, and also about how much Neil loved these instruments, how precious these instruments were on this album. Neil kept saying, ‘wait ‘til you see these faces, Jonathan.” Demme realized, “We don’t need blue screen to evoke these images. His lyrics will evoke the images.
Young’s father had passed away before making Prairie Wind, but it was also a pending operation for a brain aneurism Young had to undergo that led to the writing and recording of the songs, which he had written in a week and a half. “I couldn’t think of the one I did yesterday, because I was thinking of the one I was writing for tomorrow, so they were all coming pretty fast.” Neil recorded the album before the operation, in case it didn’t turn out well.
“We talked in terms of characters,” Demme says, regarding the aesthetic approach to the concert as a film. “We talked about the film having a very real—if surreal—narrative, an emotional narrative. We really wanted to take people on an emotional journey. So there were characters populating the landscape of the movie. Neil talked about this character in the song ‘It’s A Dream,’ this grandfatherly figure and he wanted (musician) Grant Boatwright in there and Neil pictured him in a long black coat in a Stetson hat wandering the landscape.”
The concert was shot at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. As soon as word got out that Demme was making a Neil Young concert film, he heard from some of the best cinematographers in the business, all willing to work for minimum pay just to be there to film it. “The picture starts out with seven to ten minutes of getting-to-know-you moments with the band, and what I wanted to do there was to shoot that myself with a really bad camera. I wanted it to look digital, wanted it to look crude, all the better to build up to the moment where the curtains part and we see Ellen Kuras’ magnificent, exquisite Super-16 cinematography. It would be such a relief for the viewer to get away from my stuff.”
Young shares Demme’s unconventional approach to cinematography. “If we had shot this in digital, there would be no way it would have the warmth that it has,” says Young, referring to the current documentary climate that favors cheaper, more practical digital cameras to actual film stock. Young even filmed Greendale using a Super-8 camera and hiring his friends to play the characters and lip sync the songs.
“I think the Super-8 approach to Greendale was more of a defensive move for me,” Young says. “I wanted to make a film that didn’t cost a lot of money and I wanted it to look kinda cheap, because the subject matter would have more urgency to me if it was more real, like if it looked like something that almost anyone could have done. It would have an almost fun feeling, and even in the sets. It almost looked like a high school level, trying things out and making things happen. So, it was defensive because if I didn’t spend a lot of money on it, than nobody could dispute that it was an urgent thing that was happening. I’m a little paranoid about stepping out that far and spending a lot of money doing something like that.”
Demme and Young wanted Neil Young: Heart of Gold to be about more than just aesthetic. They wanted to capture a sense of history within the present. “We were talking about the history of American music, country music,” says Demme. “As far as we knew, in the visual literature of country music, there really hasn’t been that much respectful, loving, appropriate documentation of that world, including the world of backdrops and special costumes and stuff like that.”
Neil Young: Heart of Gold earned rave reviews from critics across the country. Demme is now in New Orleans with a documentary crew covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Young has since released another album, Living With War, a reaction against the Bush administration and the War in Iraq.
“I do want to do more films though and learn about how to organizing bigger pictures,” Young says. “I would want to do a film about a performer, but I would use their performances, so that the music really matters.”
Young adds: “Since 2002, I haven’t really made a song that wasn’t a film.”
Neil Young: Heart of Gold will be released on DVD June 13, 2006.
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originally posted: 06/09/06 22:05:33
last updated: 07/23/06 02:59:44