“There is a town in North Ontario”: Jonathan Demme takes Neil Young home

September 27, 2012

Neil Young Journeys
Grade: 87
Cast: Documentary, with Neil Young
Director: Jonathan Demme
Rating:PG, for drug references in some songs
Running time:87 minutes

In this, the third of Jonathan Demme’s documentary/concert films about Neil Young (after 2006’s Heart of Gold and 2009’s Trunk Show), the director — who made Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia before downscaling into smaller projects, most of which involve musicians he obviously loves — rides with the famous Canadian around his tiny hometown of Omemee (“in the heart of Pigeon River country”) in a gorgeous 1956 Ford Crown Victoria, as Young reminisces about sleeping in pup tents and eating tar (at the behest of a town character named Goof Foot).

If that doesn’t sound like fun to you (and it is fun, it really is!) then you might like the concert clips, filmed over two nights at Toronto’s Massey Hall. It’s just Young and his insinuating voice (which I’m inclined to credit more now than I was 40 years ago), various guitars, harmonica and piano, over which he displays a great and tender command. The bulk of the material presented here is from his 2010 album Le Noise, and the songs come off warmer (and better) here than in that experimental Daniel Lanois’ produced project. (Though I won’t revise my opinion of “Love and War” — it’s still a clunky ballad.) Better are the unreleased tunes, the haunting “You Never Call” and “Leia” (the clip below is not from the film, btw) andthe stunning acoustic version of “Hey, Hey, My, My” performed (if I’m not mistaken) on the Martin D-28 that used to belong to Hank Williams.

Yet, while it probably won’t win Young any new fans, Demme has a sure hand with concert material, and shooter Declan Quinn closes in on Young’s face, through what I imagine are lipstick cameras taped to the microphone, allowing us an intimate portrait of an artist entranced in his metier. Young’s musicianship is remarkable — he’s not simply a guitar hero, he has a way of whispering notes into alignment, rubbing them together for alchemical effects. I don’t know if there’s another performer who can wrench so much feeling out of wire and wood.

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