Thursday, February 9th, 2006
I've Been A Miner For A Heart Of Gold
I was fortunate to get a couple free passes to the advance screening of Jonathan Demme’s Neil Young live documentary, Neil Young: Heart Of Gold last night. It’s hard to say what makes a good concert film, since it really comes down to the performers and the performance – which the director has no real control over – but whatever it takes Jonathan Demme has it.
Filmed over two nights at The Ryman in Nashville last August, the film captures the world premiere of Neil’s latest album Prairie Wind, accompanied by a host of musicians including Emmylou Harris, his wife Pegi, the musicians who played on the album and a string section and gospel choir. The film opens with some brief interviews with Neil and his band, but quickly gets into the concert portion and lets the music handle the rest. I haven’t heard Prairie Wind but if its anything as lush or gorgeous as the live renditions captured in the film, I really should give it a chance (or just pick up the soundtrack to the movie). The difficulties Neil faced in 2005 (the brain aneurysm, the death of his father) are well documented, and those brushes with mortality really inform the tone of the film. There’s a real serenity and vulnerability about Neil in these performances, in both the songs and the somewhat surprising openness of the between-song dialogue – it’s a real celebration of his life, his family and friends. The first half of the film is all new material, but later on he gets into some classic acoustic material which sounds so good, it might well bring a tear to your eye.
On the visual front, the film is appropriately understated, using slow cuts and tight close-ups on the performers in conjunction with simple but warm stage and costume design to create an intimate, elegiac and down-home atmosphere perfectly suited to the mood and setting of the Grand Ole Opry. Most past tour films featuring Neil have concentrated on trying to capture the chaos of his electrified Crazy Horse material, and justifiably so – the Horse in action is something to behold. But Demme shows that Neil Young the folksinger is just as electrifying on the screen as the ragged rocker, though in a completely different way. This is a very special film, not just for the quality of the music but for capturing a brilliant artist at a very key point in his life and his career. Definitely worth seeing for any Neil fan, and stay for the closing credits – they’re mesmerizing.
Collateral material – LA Daily News has words with Demme and Young about the film, and both Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes have collected incandescently glowing reviews of the film. Neil didn’t pick up a Grammy last night in either of the two categories he was nominated in, but I won’t call that an injustice. I think the Grammy Awards are utterly worthless, no matter who they’ve nominated, whether I like them or not.
Thanks to BrooklynVegan for pointing out the embaressment of live Billy Bragg riches over at Archive.org. Bragg is in town at the Opera House on March 11 for what will be a solo show – no Blokes, just Billy and his Burns Bison.
np – Emmylou Harris / Wrecking Ball