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|
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|
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.