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Neil Young Journeys
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Journey Through The Past."
5 stars

Neil Young is, of course, justly celebrated as one of the key figures in the history of rock music thanks to early hits as a member of the supergroups Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, his classic albums as a solo artist, his willingness to follow his creative instincts to some odd and unexpected places and the fact that he, with the sole exception of Bob Dylan, is the only 60's-era musician who has continued to remain culturally and artistically relevant after a career spanning nearly a half-century. However, there is one aspect to his career that doesn't get discussed too often and that is in regards to his cinematic efforts. Oh sure, most popular musicians find themselves tempted with the notion of trying to translate their success on the pop charts into big-screen stardom but with precious few exceptions, the results have either been uninspired concert documentaries that are little more than cinematic souvenirs or star vehicles that too often prove that the ability to perform in front of thousands of people in concert does not necessarily translate to success in front of a movie camera. Young, on the other hand, has explored the cinematic possibilities of his music throughout his career via straightforward documentaries (including "Rust Never Sleeps," "Year of the Horse" and "CSNY Deja Vu") and oddball narrative features as the weirdo "Human Highway" and the gorgeous 2003 "Our Town" riff "Greendale" and the results have been just as engrossing, entertaining and musically exhilarating as the albums that inspired them.

Although Young pretty much dominates every recording situation that he becomes involved with, whether he is on his own or as part of one of the numerous groups that he has participated in, his best and most valuable cinematic efforts to date have been in conjunction with another equally talented artist and that is filmmaker Jonathan Demme, already a charter member of the Rock Movie Hall of Fame thanks to the canny and often spot-on soundtrack selections for his narrative films and for directing what is often considered to be one of the best concert films ever made, the Talking Heads classic "Stop Making Sense." Having previously worked together on "Philadelphia" (for which Young contributed an Oscar-nominated title song) and a long-form video to promote the 1994 album "Sleeps With Angels," they made their first full-scale film collaboration with the highly acclaimed 2006 concert film "Neil Young: Heart of Gold" and followed that up three years later with the lesser-seen but equally impressive "Neil Young Trunk Show." Now the two have joined forces again to complete the trilogy with "Neil Young Journeys" and while some might wonder what more he or Demme could possibly have to say with a third film of this type in a little more than six years, it proves to be just like its predecessors in the sense that it offers viewers a portrait of a true musical legend who is equally fascinating both onstage and off.

"Heart of Gold," you will recall, was a somber and elegiac work that saw Young hitting the stage of Nashville's famed Ryman Auditorium for his first major shows since suffering a brain aneurysm a few months earlier to premiere "Prairie Wind," a album of surprisingly reflective tunes inspired by his near-death experience. "Trunk Show," on the other hand, was a looser and louder work that offered up a grab bag of tunes from throughout his career that was shot during a tour promoting "Chrome Dreams II," an album that itself consisted mostly of tunes that Young had recorded over the years but which had never made it onto any of his other albums. This time around, intimacy is the key as Young appears on the stage of Toronto's Massey Hall to perform the final shows of a solo tour promoting "Le Noise," an album featuring a series of tunes in which he accompanied himself via electric or acoustic guitar with not a single other musicians to be had. Interspersed between the songs is footage of a road trip that Young and Demme took through Ontario to get to the concert that finds Young piloting his 1956 Ford Crown Victoria through the streets of the rural town of Omemee, where he spent many of his formative years, while reminiscing about the days that used to be.

From a musical standpoint, Young is seen in peak form here as he runs through a lineup that includes most of the songs from "Le Noise" mixed in with a few classics ("Ohio," complete with archival footage of the Kent State tragedy that inspired him to write it, "After the Gold Rush" and "I Believe in You") and even a couple of previously unreleased tunes, the most notable of which is the lovely "Leia." Although the idea of Young performing solo may cause people to assume that the music leans closer to his quieter, folkier material, he proves right from the start that this is not to me the case. He may be up there by himself but he attacks the songs with such power (augmented by a sound mix that brings the music front and center to such a degree that even the acoustic numbers had the speakers practically rumbling off the walls at the screening I attended) that other instrumentation would come across as superfluous. In keeping with the intimate nature of the proceedings, Demme smartly repeats the trick that helped make "Stop Making Sense" work so wonderfully and keeps the presence of the audience to an absolute minimum by keep them offscreen for the most part and even minimizing them on the soundtrack as much as possible.

Instead, he keeps things focused squarely on Young--literally at some points thanks to cameras aimed so closely at Young that a bit of spittle hits the lens at one point and we are treated to several shots that reveal what appears to be his dental work--and lets his songs speak for themselves instead of offering up inane shots of fans clapping and cheering in ecstasy. He utilizes the same approach for the most part during the road trip segments and between that and his pre-existing friendship with Young, he gets the often-taciturn singer to open up quite a bit and while the memories may not seem especially revelatory on the surface, it is fascinating to watch him muse upon his memories of how things were back in the day and how things have changed. (Compare this with the backstage piffle heard in recent films featuring current pop stars like the "Glee" cast and Katy Perry and. . .well, actually there is no comparison.) There is only one point when this approach doesn't quite and it comes during the performance of the classic "Down by the River," a song that has long been a favorite in concert for the guitar pyrotechnics that it has been known to inspire. Instead of focusing on Young churning out his extended solos, which have led to 20-minute-long versions in concert on occasion, Demme trains his cameras exclusively on the singer's face throughout the entire song and while this particular focus is interesting for a little while, the decision to stick to it for the whole song veers from the eccentric to the downright perverse.

For those of you who are somehow unfamiliar with Neil Young and his extensive career to date, "Neil Young Journeys" is not exactly the best way of exposing yourself to his work for the first time--the much gentler "Heart of Gold" would be a far more effective gateway to his music for newcomers. For his fans, however, the film works brilliantly both as an individual portrait of an artist who still finds himself grappling with the ideas that first inspired him even after a career that few could possibly hope to equal in either length or artistic relevance and as the eminently satisfying conclusion to one of the most unexpectedly rewarding film trilogies in recent memory. And, yet, there is no sense of finality in anything that we see and hear. In fact, the last scene in the film follows Young as he leaves the stage at Massey Hall for his tour bus and once more sets off down the road for parts unknown. Where he winds up next is anybody's guess (for now, he seems to have returned to longtime backup band Crazy Horse, with whom he recently released an album of zonked-out renditions of classics like "Oh Susannah" and "Tom Dooley" and has apparently recorded another album for release later this year) but wherever he winds up, I hope that he remember to invite Demme along for the ride as well.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=22985&reviewer=389
originally posted: 07/12/12 22:08:53
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Slamdance Film Festival For more in the 2012 Slamdance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival For more in the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.

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  29-Jun-2012 (PG)
  DVD: 16-Oct-2012


  DVD: 16-Oct-2012

Directed by
  Jonathan Demme

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