Neil Young: Heart of Gold
11-02-06 Seleccionado por: Arty Show
by Manohla Dargis
WHEN the curtain opens, Neil Young is standing onstage, his face full of years. Dressed in a gray western suit, with a plainsman's hat and a well-used acoustic guitar, he looks like an old-time cowboy crooner, but somehow scruffier. The hair curling over his collar seems greasy and the way he ducks his head you might think he hadn't spent much time indoors; he probably needs to knock the dust off his boots before he enters the parlor. It's a fanciful fiction, this gent with the hat, the suit and the aw-shucks reserve, and part of the beautiful story Jonathan Demme tells in his concert film "Neil Young: Heart of Gold."
Mr. Demme shot the film over the course of two concerts recorded on Aug. 18 and 19 in Nashville's storied Ryman Auditorium, original home of the Grand Ole Opry. The first half of the film includes 9 of the 10 songs from Mr. Young's most recent album, "Prairie Wind" (Mr. Demme saved one song for the DVD); the second features 10 titles from his songbook, a number of which were first recorded in Nashville. Although this part of the film — this set, really — begins with "I Am a Child," which he recorded with his former band Buffalo Springfield, many of the other titles in this section — "Old Man," "Old King" and "The Old Laughing Lady" — suggest that Mr. Young, who turned 60 in November, is in a ruminative state of mind.
The film provides no real back story about the production, but in interviews Mr. Young has said that the idea for it arose out of a phone conversation he had with Mr. Demme. The director, who made the Talking Heads concert film "Stop Making Sense," explained that he had a year off (nice work if you can get it) and asked Mr. Young what he was up to. As it happens, the musician had just finished "Prairie Wind," which he had begun recording right after discovering that he had to undergo surgery for a brain aneurysm. He cut some of the songs in Nashville, had the surgery (twice) and then finished the recording. Released in September, the album was nominated for a Grammy for rock album of the year. (It lost.)
That "Neil Young: Heart of Gold" opens in theaters just two days after the Grammys gives the documentary a whiff of promotion, but it is also of a piece with a life's work that has included four films (directed by Mr. Young under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey) and such self-institutionalizing artifacts as an authorized if legally troubled biography, "Shakey," and music anthologies like "Decade" and the long-awaited, still-awaited "Neil Young Archives." Brushing up against death as Mr. Young did last year would be reason enough to undertake a concert film like this; but the songs are justification enough. Filled with country memories, bluesy regret, familiar and piercing sentiment, the new album sounds like quintessential Neil Young, which, depending on your home catalog, will be either an enormous turn-on or turn-off.
Those who welcome each of his new albums will probably feel as generously disposed toward the film. Like the album, which features some of Mr. Young's memorable colleagues — the steel guitarist Ben Keith, the bass guitarist Rick Rosas and Emmylou Harris, among others — the film has the feel of a family reunion, though one conspicuously short on the young'uns. There are a lot of gray and white hairs amassed on that stage, plenty of wrinkles and jowls too. Working with the cinematographer Ellen Kuras and nine cameras, including one mounted on a Steadicam, Mr. Demme doesn't shy away from the lines and the jowls; he gives them their due. To watch these weathered faces exchanging practiced glances or temporarily alone in a riff is greatly pleasurable, as well as a nice break from pop culture's plastic unreality.
In "Neil Young: Heart of Gold," the colors shift from ocher to shades of blue as the mood shifts from plaintive to rueful. Every so often a scrim slides awkwardly into place behind the musicians and a painted train cutting across a prairie is replaced with an interior scene of a skinny cat, a fat chair and a fireplace. The show's simplicity and homespun vibe serve Mr. Young's emotionally tremulous songs, both the new and the old, wonderfully well. At one point, during one of his occasional verbal rambles, he says half-jokingly, half-defensively that he's got some love songs left in him. This film, which is at once a valentine from one artist to another and a valentine from a musician to his audience, is surely proof that he does.
Given all the free-flowing love, it may seem churlish to complain about the poor image quality. Shot in Super 16 millimeter, the film looks grubby enough that it might as well have been shot in low-grade video, the visible grain notwithstanding. That's particularly unfortunate, since the camerawork is so good. The camera tends to move only if Mr. Demme wants us to notice something, like the worn-away varnish on Mr. Young's guitar; both the camera movements and the editing take it nice and easy, like the songs. A shot of the full moon over the Ryman before the concert is especially lovely, not only because it alludes to one of Mr. Young's favorite images ("blue moon sinking," "full moon risin'," "yellow moon," "silver moon," "unfulfilled moon") but also because, I swear, it looks like a beacon.
"Neil Young: Heart of Gold" is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). It's as clean as a whistle.
Neil Young: Heart of Gold
Opens today in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto.
Directed by Jonathan Demme; director of photography, Ellen Kuras; edited by Andy Keir; production designer, Michael Zansky; produced by Mr. Demme and Ilona Herzberg; released by Paramount Classics. In Manhattan at the Union Square Stadium 14, 850 Broadway, at 13th Street. Running time: 103 minutes.
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