Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Neil Young: Heart of Gold (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on June 16, 2006

Directed by Jonathan Demme/starring Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Ben Keith, Spooner Oldham, Rick Rosas, Pegi Young/Paramount Home Entertainment

A documentary about two concerts Young played at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium to premiere songs from his album Prairie Wind.

Neil Young is one of those rare artists who can do anything he wants, and pull it off brilliantly most of the time. He’s just one of those guys, like Dylan, Springsteen and Bowie, who breathe the rarefied air of rock stardom while at the same time possessing a true musical genius and a wandering spirit that prevents them from simply cashing in on their pasts or repeating themselves. He’s done folk, rock, country, punk, rockabilly, blues and even techno (before the word was invented) and shows no sign of slowing down.

This is my way of saying that, yes, I’m a fan, and have been for years. In an era where people apply the word “artist” to Barbie dolls like Jessica Simpson and the glorified karaoke singers of American Idle, Neil represents a certain kind of integrity that still means something to a precious few. A true “artist” is judged on his or her body of work, not on units sold or chart position, and Young’s 40-year career ranks up there with the absolute best in the history of rock music. He’s lasted so long because he’s good, because he’s prolific (still more so than perhaps any other major artist of his generation), and because he means every word he sings and every note he plays. Even though he hasn’t had a bona fide hit in about 17 years (“Rockin’ in the Free World”), Neil keeps plugging away, and the fans keep listening. It’s not a nostalgia trip – his music still matters.

As he clearly shows on Heart of Gold, it’s the music that’s important to Young, and that’s exactly what this doc celebrates. There’s no rock-star ego trips or idol worship here – it’s all about the songs. Having already explored his more rock-oriented work in previous docs such as Rust Never Sleeps and Year of the Horse, Heart of Gold heralds Young’s country-influenced material. He performed these shows at the original home of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry to premiere songs from his then-new album Prairie Wind, and also agreed to perform his classics that were written in the same vein.

Of course, it’s important to note that Young’s music was influenced by real country music, not that slick, twangy, godawful crap they play on mainstream country radio. If you’re at all familiar with Harvest or Comes a Time or Harvest Moon, you know pretty much what to expect here musically – it’s that Neil. While the new material sounds great, it’s a little difficult not to get antsy for a classic like “Old Man”, “Heart of Gold” (one of the greatest songs ever written, in my book) or “Comes a Time”, and thankfully Neil and company deliver. After about an hour. Still, even if you’re not that familiar with the songs on Prairie Wind (I have yet to pick up a copy, though I definitely will soon), this is a great way to be introduced to them.

The performances here are almost startlingly intimate, in keeping with the tradition of the Grand Ole Opry that Young is paying tribute to. This feeling is magnified by the fact that Demme never cuts away to the audience, unlike most concert films. There’s a little bit of interview footage in the beginning, but once Young and his band take the stage, the film never leaves it. So if watching a band perform isn’t your thing, you might want to put the disc on while doing something else, like house cleaning or, I don’t know, reading movie reviews on the Internet. Demme uses a lot of long takes, which somehow fits the music perfectly, but there isn’t a lot of visual spectacle here, other than seeing Young and his band dress like extras from Deadwood.

So this isn’t exactly a concert film for the ADD-afflicted MTV generation. But that actually works in the movie’s favor, because the music is powerful enough to withstand such a spare, minimalist approach. Having already made one great concert film (Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense) in much the same style, Demme is confident enough to simply show the performance, and let the music speak for itself, which is perfectly in keeping with Young’s no-bullshit methodology.

In truth, it’s the music itself and the jubilant performance of it that will be the main draw for any real Young fans anyway, not any flashy camera work or seizure-inducing editing. Much like Young’s music in general, Heart of Gold is a bit of an anachronism, a piece that ironically feels relevant because of its timelessness and pure devotion to quality. It’s so un-hip that it’s beyond hipness, and renders such superficial considerations worthless. You almost feel like it could have been made at any point in his career, and that it will last as a piece of art long after most of the current “popular music” fades from memory. Whether it’s a great concert film, I think time will have to tell on that. But right now, it’s a pretty damn good one, and I’m sure it will hold up in the years to come. It may not be perfect, but perfection isn’t the goal here – capturing this particular moment in time is, and that’s something Heart of Gold does beautifully.

The 2-disc set contains quite a bit of worthwhile extras, including 6 featurettes (with interviews with Demme, Young and his collaborators), a lengthy “Rehearsal Diaries” narrated by Demme, and a bonus performance (of Prairie Wind’s “He Was the King”) not featured in the film. The true gem, however, is a rarely seen 1971 Young performance of “The Needle and the Damage Done” from The Johnny Cash Show. Not only is it a great song, of course, but Young’s appearance is startlingly…well, young. Even if it was included here as an afterthought, it’s a perfect reminder of how long the guy’s been around and how his music still resonates after 35 years. If you’re a fan, I can honestly say this set deserves to be added to your collection. If you’re not, it’s worth a rental to see what you’re missing out on.

***1/2 6/16/06

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