Not to knock films as fantastic as Rachel Getting Married, The Silence of the Lambs and Something Wild, but there's something wilder — or at least more directly stimulating and pure — about director Jonathan Demme's live-performance docs. The 68-year-old auteur immortalized a Talking Heads show in Stop Making Sense, cinematically enlarged a cozy Robyn Hitchcock set in Storefront Hitchcock, and discovered a like-minded collaborator in the titular troubadour of 2006's Neil Young: Heart of Gold and 2009's Neil Young Trunk Show. Teaming with the Canadian legend again, Demme and five other camera operators expertly capture an intense, pared-down 2011 solo show at Toronto's Massey Hall in the absorbing new Neil Young Journeys.
Intercut between these songs — the set list emphasizes Young's 33rd studio album, Le Noise, but includes perennial faves like "After the Gold Rush" and "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" — Journeys becomes both a noun and a verb. Tooling around with Demme in a 1956 Crown Victoria, scenes of Young's two-hour road trip from his hometown of Omemee, Ontario, to the concert hall is full of wistfully remembered childhood characters and milestones: fishing holes, a prankster, his famous literary father being the only white character in a minstrel show full of Irish-Canadians in blackface.
All of this reminiscing prompts a question: What means more to the bard's artistic output — reflecting on the past or keeping up with the present? "Tomorrow's the most important thing to me," Young tells me shortly after he and Demme return from a walk around Manhattan. "Today's second. Today's good. Tomorrow could be better."
On stage, behind a piano or sitting with a guitar and harmonica, Young doesn't need a backup band to take control of the room — or a movie theater. Certainly it helps that, as a hard-core audiophile, he developed an optimized sound system named Pono, which delivers the music at a higher-than-standard digital resolution, meaning that some auditoriums will need an upgrade to fully honor the robust bass and enhanced clarity. The other advantage is having an expert filmmaker on hand who has long developed practical techniques to document live concerts and still make us feel like we were there.
Demme offers up his tricks and strategies: "Don't show the audience that was present while we're filming because that makes us feel a little secondary. This movie's for the movie-goers. Cut as little as possible, and cut only when it's important. Trust the music. The big, fun part is trying to crawl inside the performance and come up with a cinematic vehicle that is organic to the themes and stories that Neil's telling. You can get lost in this stuff. It's very exciting."
Split-screen and odd camera angles from as far away as the mixing board squash any opportunities for visual monotony, with the film's most lyrical bout of spontaneity occurring when a tiny mike-mounted camera aimed at Young's grizzled jaw is hit with flying spittle during "Hitchhiker," producing a lo-fi kaleidoscopic filter that fits the "unhinged" song, as Demme calls it.
The crowd naturally erupts when Young breaks into a surly, sad rendition of "Ohio," which would still be blistering even without the names and photos of the 1970 Kent State shooting victims superimposed on the screen. After who knows how many performances, how does he still muster up such immediacy and anger in a four-decade-old protest song? "You'd probably be more amazed at how little I've done the song," Young says. "I didn't think it was right to do it over and over again. This tour, this collection of songs, this presentation told me that it was a good fit."
"We've just heard it a million times," Demme says — whether Young has played it often or not. The discussion drifts into the self-awareness of being filmed while performing. Young swears he doesn't even remember the cameras that night, and though he's "looked at it all the way through," he feels it's difficult to watch the film because, well, it's just him. The idea of self-critique is particularly unappealing to such a seasoned performer. "I know what's wrong with it," Young says, "but I knew what was wrong while I was doing it. I try to block that out of my mind. Nothing's perfect; it's just what it is."