Neil Young cut his most recent record, “Prairie Wind”, after being diagnosed with a brain aneurysm. Jonathan Demme’s concert film, "Heart of Gold", thus captures a performance charged with deep significance for the old contrarian, one of rock’s more uncompromising, eccentric, and irascible characters, who even 30 years ago was considered part of rock’s Old Guard. Shot at Nashville’s storied Ryman Auditorium, Young presents his very personal new songs, plus an encore of classics. It’s a night for his gentle country-inflected folk-rock side, for songs contemplating loved ones and mortality.
Demme’s Talking Heads concert film, 1984’s joyous “Stop Making Sense,” offered such a powerful metaphor of fellowship of men and women, black and white, that any band that fails to embody that vision has always struck me as impoverished and vaguely suspect (with obvious implications for my politics). In this film Neil is surrounded by musicians who’re old friends and family (his longtime wife Pegi sings backup) and a diverse extended community that includes the Memphis Horns and The Fisk University Jubilee Singers. His primary foil is the great Emmylou Harris; though her once raven tresses are now a striking silver, she’s still a silvery-voiced beauty.
Demme’s camera captures smiling faces that you wouldn’t be able to see from the cheap seats (such as the ones I had when I saw Young in concert in 2003), and glances that say more than words -- from husband to wife, friend to friend, musician to musician. And it captures moments -- of surprise, of joy, of being knocked out by what someone else is doing. Demme’s floating eye finds the ideal angle to view the action. We sense a point of view, an empathic cinematic intelligence translating Young’s emotional intent into cinema. Thus is Demme able to share with us his very personal experience of the show.
Though Young is capable of writing a line as perfect in its imagery as “Every junkie’s like a setting sun” (from 1972’s “The Needle and the Damage Done”, which he performs in this film), his writing is often purposely artless. In a way this approach is admirable. It’s as if he’s saying, “If the sentiment is from my heart then I’m just going to say it straight out, not dress it up in metaphor. If it’s clichéd, I’m not bothered.” Accordingly, at their worst his songs can be frightfully banal.
But when he’s on, few can put words and music together with more magic. Sitting at the piano, backed by a gospel choir and shot in tight profile, he sings a new song so gorgeous that it positively left me on the floor. “When God made me,” Neil asks, “was He thinking about my country/Or the color of my skin?/Was he thinking about my religion/And the way I worshipped Him?/Did he create just me in his image/Or every living thing?/Did He think there was only one way/To be close to Him?/Did He give us the gift of love/To say who we could choose?”
This film glows with a rare warmth. Of course it’s of most interest to those who’ve been along on the often bumpy ride with Neil. It’s a ride that the old rebel isn’t quite ready to see end anytime soon. “It’s a long road behind me,” he sings. “And a long road ahead.”
- Mar 28, 2006