The straightforward concert film is an increasing rarity these days, so the arrival of Neil Young: Heart of Gold should be cause enough to inspire music buffs and cinephiles alike. Not to mention, 1) it's Neil Young, dude, and 2) it's directed by Jonathan Demme, whose 1984 film Stop Making Sense, detailing the Talking Heads, was one of the genre's true landmarks.
However, the result is less than staggering; perhaps it's due to impossibly high expectations. Despite some fleeting taxicab interviews at the beginning, there's precious little context, and Demme chooses to stay out of the way and simply let the musicianship tell the tale. Filmed over two nights last August at Nashville's venerable Ryman Auditorium, the shows were to serve as a launchpad for Young's latest album, Prairie Wind, but they feel almost like a career send-off. Filmed just a few months after Young underwent surgery to repair a life-endangering brain aneurysm, the recurring themes of mortality, memory and loss seem distressingly intimate, and his backing band mostly old friends and collaborators seems to have been assembled as much for comfort as for rock 'n' roll chops. Ben Keith, Spooner Oldham and Emmylou Harris provide ample support to Young, whose plaintive wail is as haunting and weirdly tender as it ever was. There are at least two Neil Youngs: the cynical, combative rocker who pumped out proto-grunge, and the wistful country-tinged sentimentalist who's on display here. Though he's always written about longing, Young seems almost embarrassed to note that he's now writing empty-nest songs about his daughter and not some pale young beauty that's slipped through his fingers. Though his hair is graying, his face still contorts into a pained grimace with every note, as if he's squeezing every last drop of feeling out of his heart, a feat of dedication beyond the scope of many of his peers.
The problem is that Young's new stuff, though mining the same winsome vein as his earlier work, just isn't anywhere near as involving. The songs are filled with images of placid, dusty plains and golden country sunsets, but sound far too similar. Only when he finally dips into his back catalogue to pluck some nuggets from the immortal 1972 treasure trove Harvest does the poignancy seem unforced. To hear him now sing the grand title track, with its weary lament of growing old, is to find an artist who's finally collided with the horizon he's always been bracing for with grace and style intact.
Showing at the Birmingham 8 (211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456).
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].