Jonathan Demme procrastinates from following up on his excellent last fiction feature Rachel Getting Married with concert film Neil Young Journeys. This marks the third collaboration between director and musician, having previously produced the well-received Heart of Gold (2005) and Trunk Show (2010, which doesn’t seem to have received an Irish release). This time around, Young performs solo in Massey Hall, Toronto in support of his 2010 album Le Noise. Between songs, Demme cuts in scenes of Young’s road-trip from his hometown in Ontario to the venue.
Listen: if you’re a Neil Young fan, you’ll more than likely enjoy this. If you can’t stand his distinctive drawl, well then its safe to say Journey is unlikely to convert you. Still, for what its worth, it is quite well made within its unavoidable confines. Demme – a concert movie veteran, with the beloved Stop Making Sense under his belt – keeps the camera focused squarely on Young throughout. There’s not a single reaction shot from the – seemingly enthusiastic – crowd, and we only glimpse them in silhouette for the first time an hour into the ninety-minute film. Demme shoots and edits in a considered style – long shots for the most part, only becoming comparatively frantic during the climactic performance of ‘Hitchhiker’. The camera angles are unusually chosen – during two songs, for example, we cut to extreme close-ups of Young’s mouth. I mean extreme – you can pretty much make out individual facial hairs, and the ‘mic camera’ is amusingly victim to what seems to be some stray saliva towards the end of the set.
Luckily, Young is still a spry and energetic performer, more than able to hold our attention on his lonesome. The soundtrack is spread fairly evenly between cuts from Le Noise and classics such as ‘After the Goldrush’, ‘Hey Hey, My, My’ and ‘Down by the River’. There are few outright duds. One odd misstep is Demme’s decision to repeatedly superimpose the photographs and names of “the four dead in Ohio” over the rousing performance of Young’s protest anthem Ohio. It’s a nice sentiment that reminds us of the song’s historical origins, but the delivery – complete with a font choice right of a hastily thrown together Powerpoint Presentation – feels clunky, inelegant and stylistically out of whack with the rest of the film. The quality of the sound design is, naturally, excellent throughout, and really brings out the sonic subtleties of Young’s performance.
The road-trip footage is relatively inconsequential, but there’s not really all that much of it (probably around fifteen minutes worth, if even). There are some nicely poignant moments when Young visits his family’s long since abandoned plot of land, but apart from that I wouldn’t say the eponymous journey significantly enhances or detracts from the documentary.
Neil Young Journeys, then, will inevitably resonate most with fans – especially Irish fans rabidly anticipating the performer’s 2013 long-awaited return to Dublin. For everyone else, it will likely boil down to your tolerance of Young’s music. Still: it’s well-put together by Demme, and a fine testament to a veteran performer who has lost little of his musical spark.
Neil Young Journeys is released on 4th January 2013