An older man sits crouched on a chair with an acoustic guitar. The auditorium in front of him is empty. The concert is over. All the equipment has been removed from the stage. The band is waiting for the bus. The ushers are long gone. The man, a beat-up old guitar case at his side, black shades masking his eyes, sings his heart out to no one, some simple, poetic, melodic and sorrowful lines about an "old laughing lady."
He finishes, glances lovingly at his guitar, places it back in its case, grabs his hat, and shuffles off the stage, alone.
These five minutes, rolled over the closing credits of Jonathan Demme's brilliant new film, "Neil Young: Heart of Gold," tell you everything you need to know about Young. More than any other figure in rock history, this guy is in it for the music. Everything else is wholly secondary to him. So many revered musicians claim that they'd be doing what they do even if they'd never gotten famous and rich doing it. By the time you finish watching Demme's film, you've no doubt that, in Young's case, this is the absolute gospel truth.
Young has been performing this post-show ritual for decades, so it's no surprise that Demme chose to end his film with it. The director wisely assessed early on that Young is a story in himself. This realization served Demme incredibly well throughout his documentation of Young's August 2005 concerts inside the home of the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium, where he debuted his most recent album, the elegiac "Prairie Wind."
The back story involves the writing and recording of that album, which Young achieved rather quickly, after receiving news that he faced surgery for a potentially fatal brain aneurysm. Staring evenly at his own mortality, and the recent loss of loved ones, Young penned some of the most reflective songs of a career that has never shied away from reflection. "Family. History. A state of the soul," is how Young describes the themes of "Prairie Wind," and they gave Demme plenty to work with when, following the successful surgery, Young planned two shows in the Ryman.
Being Neil Young, the singer viewed these as more than concerts; they would essentially tell a story of friendship, endurance, love and loss, and they'd do so almost exclusively without the aid of dialogue. Gathering some of his oldest friends and musical compatriots -- including longtime collaborators Ben Keith, Spooner Oldham, Emmylou Harris and wife Pegi -- Young structured a set list around "Prairie Wind," and married to it gems from his albums that are its closest kin: "Harvest," "Comes a Time" and "Harvest Moon." Steering clear of the raucous grandiosity of his heavy, electric Crazy Horse-related material, Young and his brethren concentrated on a lilting, folk- and country-based sound. Demme's task was made easy by Young, who'd assembled a body of work that employed individual story-songs in service of a grander story, one examining the ties that bind us all, should we choose to acknowledge them or not.
What Demme has done here is nothing short of remarkable. He relies on only a few cameras, avoids shooting the audience, and allows the shots to arrive, stick around long enough to say something to the viewer, and pace themselves in accordance with the songs themselves. In that way, the director pushes the concert documentary forward by reminding us of its past.
It's as if, watching "Heart of Gold," MTV and all its attendant overblown "concept videos" and hyper editing never happened, which might not be a bad thing.
Demme knows Young, and thereby, knows that the story is in the songs, on the faces of the musicians playing them, in the delicate interaction between them when in performance. One simple, brief but glowing glance between Young and his wife, punctuating the elegant honesty of "Harvest Moon's" lyrics, tells us more about Young than could a million concept videos.
The music, not surprisingly, is refined, gorgeous, mellow, but not at all sleepy. Young and his band have never sounded better. And Demme has given us a graceful, refined look at Young's music.
See this film, and treasure it.
3.5 stars (out of 4)
NEIL YOUNG: HEART OF GOLD
STARRING: Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Ben Keith, Spooner Oldham, Rick Rosas, Karl Himmel, Chad Cromwell and Pegi Young
DIRECTOR: Jonathan Demme
RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes
RATING: PG for drug references
THE LOWDOWN: Director Demme captures Young and friends in concert at the historic Ryman Auditorium following rock icon's survival of a brain aneurysm.