In the third collaboration between Neil Young and director Jonathan Demme, the legendary singer songwriter pulls out a handful of old favorites, but the real focus of Neil Young Journeys is Young’s recent solo album, Le Noise. As a result, Journeys might not be as immediately appealing for the casual fan as was Neil Young: Heart of Gold, but it’s the kind of intimate, mesmerizing performance that has the power to turn a casual fan into a passionate one.
Recorded over two nights at Toronto’s historic Massey Hall, Journeys runs the musical gamut of Young’s moods. There’s the anger of the classic “Ohio” and the bewildered lament of “After the Gold Rush”, both undiluted by time. The old favorite “My My Hey Hey (Out of the Blue),” once a song by a man staring down his own looming irrelevance, takes on a new twist some 30 years later when that man is as vital as ever and hardly forgotten – which is more than you can say about Johnny Rotten. From Le Noise, Young unleashes the dark drama of “Peaceful Valley Boulevard,” the plaintive “Love and War,” and the haunted druggy remembrances of “Hitchhiker.” The two showstoppers for me though were a couple of songs that haven’t appeared on any album. The first was the lovely “Leia,” a twinkly, singsong lullaby written for the daughter of a friend and one of the sweetest songs Young has written. The second was “You Never Call,” an unforgettable melancholy rumination on friends and lovers lost.
The remarkable thing about Neil Young Journeys is that it’s nothing but Neil by himself with his words, his fragile but clear voice and a piano (“My My Hey Hey”), or a big old organ (“After the Gold Rush”) or just a guitar and harmonica. There’s no backing band and no fancy light show, nothing to stand between the poetry and the audience. Still, it’s surprising how much varied sound Young gets out of his solo instruments. For the first couple of numbers, I wondered if someone was accompanying him unseen in the shadows, but it was just Neil.
With such a stripped down musical set, Jonathan Demme could easily have overwhelmed it with overly fancy cinematography, but the director captures the performance as intimately, simply and unobtrusively as possible. Using multiple setups, he milks the show for plenty of visual interest and he has infinite cutting opportunities, but the cinematography never tries to upstage the music. That is exactly as it should be.
Heightening the personal feeling of the proceedings, Demme intercuts the riveting performance with scenes of Neil and his brother Bob Young simply driving around the small town where they were born a couple of hours outside of Toronto. Unscripted, Neil offers up his sometimes odd, sometimes funny and sometimes melancholy remembrances of growing up. It gives a nice context to Young’s deeply felt music.
While Neil Young Journeys doesn’t have the sweep or the precision of Demme’s first and perhaps most famous performance doc Stop Making Sense, the rawness suits Young’s style and the mode he’s operating in at this stage in his long career. They’re both loose, informal and unforgettable. I have to admit I hadn’t listened to Le Noise before seeing the documentary and I wish I had because I think it would’ve been even more engaging. As it is, I ran right out and bought it when I got out of the theater.
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