Saturday, June 30, 2012

Hey Hey: Neil Young’s Wanderings Can Never Disappoint

In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, director Jonathan Demme explained why he’s been inspired to shoot three documentaries about a certain iconic rocker: “His music was my companion for decades before I even met him.” Amen to that. The Toronto concert footage at the center of Neil Young Journeys includes a rendition of “Ohio,” his wrenching song about four people killed 42 years ago by the National Guard during an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University. This was a defining moment in an era that tore America to shreds. Young’s May 2011 performances deliver a gritty reminder, enhanced by a visual display with the names and photos of the May 1970 victims.

Three months later, “Ohio” was also the tune emanating from the sound system of a drug store on the Champs Elysee in Paris, where my husband and I – newlyweds – had landed in an attempt to flee the madness of the United States. “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming/ We’re finally on our own/ This summer I hear the drumming/ Four dead in Ohio...” I froze. There is no exit from man-made hell, as Sartre suggested. Wherever we went on a trip through Europe that was more escape hatch than honeymoon, the turmoil back home found a way to haunt us.

Whether with Buffalo Springfield or Crosby, Still and Nash or Crazy Horse, Young has always aimed straight for the heart. His lyrics can be political, sociological or romantic but they still sting. The film captures the last two nights of a solo tour in support of the Grammy-winning Le Noise, his 33rd studio album (out of 34 to date). On a stage with props, such as an enormous wooden cigar-store Indian, his emotional melodies are belted out in a familiar searing voice full of poignancy. He plays acoustic and electric guitars, harmonica and piano. It might get loud. Really, really loud. Demme, working with six cameras under the aegis of cinematographer Declan Quinn (In America), moves in close. Under his trademark straw fedora, we can almost count the hairs on Young’s whiskered cheeks. One camera is even attached to the microphone, providing lots of intimacy and, at one juncture, a bit of spittle. Bodily fluids do not add to the magic, in my humble opinion.

Neil Young's boyhood Ontario hometown
When Young’s not singing classics like “Down by the River” and “After the Gold Rush” or “Hitchhiker,” a recent number, he’s rolling down the highway in a 1956 Ford Crown Victoria. Ahead of him is his older brother, Bob, maintaining the legal speed limit in a 1991 Cadillac. The vintage cars are appropriate as the siblings take in the sights of their central Ontario hometown, Omemee – its title strangely reminiscent of Neil’s anthem “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).” Rock ‘n’ Roll is here to stay, but the place where Young grew up fishing down by the mill and camping overnight in a backyard pup tent so he could keep a watchful eye on his chickens, has changed. The former family house has since burned down; only the property remains to be walked on and commented upon. Elsewhere, there’s a new subdivision replacing a golf course and the main drag has been widened. His observation – “Isn’t this beautiful?” – does not quite ring true, as the car passes through a flat, unremarkable landscape.

A school bears the name of his late father, Scott Young, a noted journalist and novelist. The famous son’s minimally nostalgic. He’s not a guy who dwells much on the past during what we witness of the two-hour drive from the rural/suburban realm to Toronto’s Massey Hall, which he immortalized in a 1971 live album recorded there. But his memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, is due out in early October. I’m curious about whether the otherwise progressive/libertarian dove will delve into his brief flirtation with Republican jingoism after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Neil Young and his stubble
The 87-minute doc, apparently done on a budget clinging to bare bones, completes the trilogy with Demme’s more elaborate Heart of Gold in 2006 and The Neil Young Trunk Shows in 2010. This time around the film and the concert it covers are stripped down to essentials, which leads to a fairly static approach. The audience reactions are heard but never seen, creating a sort of vacuum. And the in-your-face angles on Young’s grizzled visage can be distracting.

Nonetheless, any Neil Young journey is an adventure. No matter what the subject matter, his songs generally have something enlightening or important to say – even when you don’t want to listen. Four decades ago, the message was that running away from reality is not advisable. “Gotta get down to it ...,” is one powerful line from a tune that reportedly took him about one minute to compose thanks to the intensity of his passion about the Ohio tragedy. For our own good, he stalked us through France, England, Ireland, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Denmark and Spain. So, I will follow him forever.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

No comments:

Post a Comment