Twice inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—as an individual performer and as a member of the influential Buffalo Springfield folk-rock band—Neil Young has had a storied career, though it was rocky in the beginning.
Buffalo Springfield lasted just two years (1966-68), partly because of drug arrests, but mostly because of creative differences. There were just too many superstars waiting to break out: Jim Messina and Richie Furay, who would combine country and rock ‘n’ roll in Poco (that is, before Messina left to team with Kenny Loggins); Stephen Stills, who joined David Crosby (formerly of The Byrds) and Graham Nash (formerly of The Hollies) to form Crosby, Stills, & Nash; and Young, who went solo but found his greatest popular success with a back-up band named Crazy Horse . . . that is, before he joined Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, as the group was renamed.
Though that supergroup flourished musically, the old tensions revived between Stills and Young. It was only a matter of time before Young would go off on his own again after two years with the group. But with his profile raised, Young had a much more successful stint as a solo musician. In the years leading up to Nixon’s resignation he released two of his biggest albums: After the Gold Rush and Harvest. He also struck gold with Live at Massey Hall in 1971, and he returns to perform at Massey Hall, Toronto, on May 11, 2011, though a straight concert video wasn’t enough for Young fan Jonathan Demme (“The Silence of the Lambs,” “Philadelphia”).
This is the third Young film that Demme has made, following “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” (2006) and “Neil Young Trunk Show” (2009). For “Neil Young Journeys,” the director adds interest by putting Young, an old car enthusiast, behind the wheel of a rented 1956 Ford Crown Victoria and driving behind his brother, Bob, who’s leading the way in an old Cadillac as the pair takes the scenic route from Omemee, Ontario—the town where they were born and reared—to Massey Hall, Toronto, where Young performs a solo acoustic concert. Filmed the last two nights of Young’s 2011 Le Noise World Tour, the documentary shifts gears between Young’s pointing out the sites of his childhood (which quite naturally trigger anecdotes) and his live concert performance onstage.
It’s interesting concept for a documentary, though the execution doesn’t work out as well as Demmi might have imagined . . . or the audience. For one thing, there’s an over-reliance on tight headshots of Young inside the Crown Victoria. I found myself craving medium shots the way that cruisers on old Route 66 would crave a malted and fries. And more than a few times I wished I could see more of that old car besides the big steering wheel with its narrow grip, or the small push-out side window on each side of the front seat that was always next to the roll-down window.
For the auto journey part of the film, Young seldom is show getting out of the car and poking around, or interacting with people in the town where a new school is named for his father. Mostly he points . . . and history isn’t terribly cooperative. Much of the time he’s pointing to a place and telling us what USED to be there, so we’re seeing a location out of context (no long shots) but not the actual place of his memory. As documentaries go, that’s a little like Geraldo Rivera going inside Al Capone’s vault and finding squat. “That used to be the mill down there, where I would fish,” he’d say, or “The school used to be right down here. Now it’s a park or something.” Or, “That’s my brother Bob, up there in that old Cadillac”—though we never see the Caddy up close.
There are a few good stories, though. As he passes Omenee Hall he tells, dryly, how his dad appeared in a minstrel show—the only one of the men who was not in black face. Unfortunately, here’s where the drive-and-talk format fails again. Because it’s a quick drive-by, it really doesn’t encourage or inspire Young to go into any detail. As a result, instead of full anecdotes we get brief recollections . . . and that left this Neil Young fan wanting more.
As for the concert, Young—moving slowly and carefully alone onstage among a warehouse-style assembly of amplifiers and speakers and other equipment—proves that bluesmen aren’t the only ones who can keep a career going at age 65. Appearing in a white sportcoat, black t-shirt, and ratty white straw fedora, he still plays a mean acoutstic folk guitar. Yes, on songs like “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” he slides up to the high notes, and while he eventually gets to the right neighborhood, he’s still a little flat. Then again, even as a young performer there was a strained quality as Young hit the high notes—part the result of a mournful emotive style, but also partly because you sense that the notes are at the limit of his range. The years have made his voice a little raspier as well, so it’s not the same man you heard on “Harvest” singing “Old Man.” Now he’s become that old man that he sang about at age 24. While his guitar-playing (and he plays three different instruments during the concert, one of them electrified) hasn’t skipped a beat, his singing has slipped a little. But I wouldn’t tell him that. He has a Jack Nicholson half-snarl and looks more unshaven than bearded, more in need of a haircut than long-haired. But I wouldn’t tell him that, either.
As you watch Young moving slowly and deliberately onstage, you’re ever mindful that you’re seeing a rock legend, an old-timer who, despite a continuous string of albums, remains heavily associated with the Sixties—perhaps because of early songs like “Ohio,” which, performed here, is one of the concert highlights. Young shows his passion hasn’t slipped at all as he sings about the May 4 massacre in which Ohio National Guardsmen fired 67 rounds of live ammunition at anti-war protesters on the Kent State University campus, killing four and wounding nine others. He sings and plays against a backdrop screen showing clips of the shootings that happened a little more than 31 years to the day, then listing the names of the four in memoriam—Allison B. Krause, age 19; Jeffrey Glenn Miller, age 20; Sandra Lee Scheuer, age 20; and William Knox Schroeder, age 19—and later showing pictures of the slain.
As you hear Young perform this piece of history, you almost wish the play-list would have included more of the old standards, rather than five of eight tracks from his 2010 album, Le Noise: “Walk with Me,” “Sign of Love,” “Love and War” (with its Spanish-style guitar work), “Hitchhiker,” and “Rumblin.’” As he plays a song, the title and the year it was first performed appears in subtitles, as we get subtitles for place names as well during the drive.
Young takes to the keyboard and straps on the harmonica to perform “After the Gold Rush” (1970) and proves that his falsetto still works. The other songs he performs in this concert film are “I Believe in You” (1970), “My My Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” (1979), and two previously unreleased songs, “You Never Call” (2010) and “Leia” (2010). “Walk with Me” is the single encore.
As for the cinematography, Declan Quinn does a better job with the challenge of filming Young in tight quarters on the road with moving backgrounds than he does the concert footage with the problems that lighting traditionally cause. There’s a little more grain in the concert segments, odd lighting halos, and edge indistinction.
“Neil Young Journeys” was shot using a digital camera, but you don’t get the same sense of HD quality on the concert segments until tight close-ups. Medium shots on stage are full of atmospheric intrusions—though, thankfully, noise isn’t one of them. There’s just no visual “pop” to this film, even when the camera is at its clearest in those driving segments or the two-shots featuring Young and his guitar.
The audio is similar. The bass, while not really rumbling, vibrates a little like a muffler that’s been tied up with a hanger, though otherwise the English DTS-HD MA 5.1 delivers a clear and full-bodied sound—whether it’s Young’s fret work, the sounds of traffic, audience applause, or his at-times labored singing.
In “Journey to Slamdance: A Conversation with Neil Young & Jonathan Demme,” moderator Paul Rachman coaxes some insights but mostly anecdotes from the pair in a 35-minute Q&A session. There’s another dual interview in “92Y Talks with Neil Young & Jonathan Demme” that covers much of the same ground in 33 minutes. I actually preferred the six-minute “Making Journeys,” in which Young and Demme talk about the narrative potential of a concert and the way that their association led up to this film. Rounding out the bonus features are the theatrical trailer and teasers for additional Sony Classics titles.
I’ve seen better concert videos and I’ve seen better music documentaries. This one is for diehard Neil Young fans.