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Neil Young: Heart of Gold
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Long May He Run."
5 stars

Neil Young has been a presence on the music scene for almost 40 years now and it is still difficult to get a grasp on who he is or what makes him tick. He has switched musical genres so many times over the years–a range covering everything from pop-tinged country to the most abrasive rock imaginable with oddball forays into techno, rockabilly and the blues thrown in for good measure–that even the most dedicated fans–the kind who purchased the likes of “Everybody’s Rockin” or “Trans” the day they debuted–generally have no idea what to expect from a new Neil Young record. His concerts are, often as not, usually designed around some grand concept that allow him to somewhat disappear into the proceedings and his seemingly unadorned excursions with his longtime band Crazy Horse allow him to wrap himself in the musical equivalent of a sonic boom.. Even in his occasional forays into filmmaking–concert films such as “Journey Through the Past” and “Rust Never Sleeps” and oddball narratives like “Human Highway” and “Greendale”–find him hiding behind another persona with his “Bernard Shakey” nom de plume.

Therefore, it comes as somewhat of a shock to watch Jonathan Demme’s extraordinary new concert film “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” and see a vulnerable and emotionally connected Neil Young who is willing to drop the various facades and speak to us through his songs in a simple and unadorned manner. Even longtime Young fans may be surprised by the intimate nature of the proceedings as he offers up a group of new songs as personal and direct as any that he has ever offered as well as a group of classics delivered with such genuine feeling that even the most familiar warhorses sound as fresh as the day you first heard them. The result is a touching and powerful film that deserves to be on the shortlist, along with “Gimme Shelter,” “The Last Waltz” and Demme’s own “Stop Making Sense” as one of the all-time great concert movies.<

Admittedly, part of the emotional nature of both the music and the films comes from the circumstances under which they were created. Last winter, Young was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm and quickly wrote and recorded a group of songs, most revolving around looking back on life, love and loss, in Nashville with a group of friends before undergoing a risky surgical procedure. After recovering from that, Young released those songs later that year on the “Prairie Wind” CD and debuted them in a live performance at Nashville’s legendary Ryman Auditorium, his first major concert appearance (not counting a brief performance at the Canadian portion of the Live 8 concerts)since his ailment and surgery. Therefore, it is likely that a majority of the audience were simply relieved to be celebrating the fact that he was alive and kicking. As for the music, what it might consist of would have been anyone’s guess since Young has always been famous for delivering new and unpredictable material with little to no advanced warning of what it might consist of–when he kicked off his tour to support 2003's environmental rock opera “Greendale,” several months before the actual release of the album, early audiences went to the shows expecting a traditional Crazy Horse round-up and were confronted instead by a multi-media extravaganza that suggested what “Our Town” might have been like with feedback.

Musically, the songs in the film fall into the tasteful country-pop realm with which he has always had his greatest commercial success with albums such as “Harvest” and “Harvest Moon.” Lyrically, the material is startling in its intimacy and personal nature. For a man who has always seemed restless to move on to the next new thing, these new tunes present us with a Neil Young at a point in life where he is looking back and taking stock of his life–the recent loss of his father, the fact that his children have all grown up and left the nest and his influences on his career (he even plays a song on a guitar that he introduces as having been previously owned by Hank Williams)–while warily preparing for what may be coming around the bend. After taking us through the new tunes, he returns for an encore of favorites from throughout the years that have acquired new meanings to both the singer and his audience over time–“Old Man” has taken on a more bittersweet aura than ever before while “The Needle and the Damage Done” comes across as less about those who have succumbed to drugs than as an elegy to all of those who have gone before him. He also opens up in ways beyond his music–not exactly the most talkative of performers, Young is uncommonly outgoing in explaining the roots behind some of the songs and the film opens with him and his colleagues frankly discussing his illness and recovery and how they have informed his work this time around.

The music is wonderful, of course (even those predisposed to loathing Young’s music may find their toes tapping), but what transforms the film into something more than just an extended music video is the way in which Jonathan Demme, one of the few American film directors who really understands how to utilize the cinematic possibilities of rock music, has captured the concert. Although he uses the same visual ideas that he did in his landmark “Stop Making Sense”–chiefly a stately and elegant style that captures the performers without resorting to sticking a camera up their nostrils or constant cuts to the audience to remind us that they are there. However, while the magic of “Stop Making Sense” came from the way that Demme used this approach to show us the joy and excitement to be had from a band clicking together on all cylinders, he instead focuses bringing this newer and more vulnerable Young to his audience–even though he is often surrounded by a small army of sidemen and backup singers (including the glorious Emmylou Harris, who duets with Young on “This Old Guitar”), it often feels as if he is the only one out there and he is singing his heart out as if it might be his last chance. In fact, the most striking moment in the film–indeed, perhaps one of the most moving moments that Demme has ever captured on film–comes during the end credits as Young, after the concert, sits alone in the empty auditorium and performs a heartbreaking rendition of “The Old Laughing Lady.” It is a mesmerizing moment and the exact thing that Neil Young fans can now point to when asked to explain their devotion.

Obviously, those fans are going to be the ones who will rush out to catch this in the theaters while others, perhaps assuming that it is basically a music video and shouldn’t really be considered a movie. All I know is that this film has more genuine heart and emotion in its 93 minutes than any of the current Best Picture and contains better music than any of the recent Grammy nominees for Album of the Year. “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” may have begun as a celebration of the simple fact that a man is still alive but it is much more than that–it captures one brilliant artist at the peak of his powers as seen through the eyes of another at the peak of his.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=13579&reviewer=389
originally posted: 02/17/06 00:08:05
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2006 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Portland Film Festival For more in the 2006 Portland Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/28/16 brian Deeply personal, moving, timeless. 5 stars
1/05/15 thomas i didn't like this movie 1 stars
4/15/07 fools&#9835;gold No corny visions of an audience reaction; just a perfect Neil Young concert film. 4/5 or... 5 stars
3/07/07 William Goss Seriously overrated. Songs are certainly nice, but numbing after an hour. Fans only. 3 stars
3/02/07 jonny cash crap 1 stars
8/06/06 Gail Rapturous is an understatement. The music and filming was lush and ultimately fulfilling. 5 stars
6/23/06 Jan Willis A superb artist at his best! 5 stars
5/01/06 Carl One of the the most beautiful things I've ever seen on film. 5 stars
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  DVD: 13-Jun-2006



Directed by
  Jonathan Demme

Written by

  Neil Young

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