It helps if you’re into Neil Young. Back in the mid-1970s there was this guy Brian, who wore his dirty blonde hair down to the shoulders of his Army surplus jacket. He would come around the park across from my house carrying albums, like After the Gold Rush. My mom sensed that Brian was headed for trouble — and I did, just now, find his mugshot online — but he was the one who turned me onto Neil Young. I heard “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” and I was hooked for life.

Over the years, Neil Young has gone through a long succession of phases and albums, some of which became sonic milestones in my own life. I have never seen him in person, but I feel like I have, because I have watched him on TV so many times, going back to the inception of Farm Aid, and to shows like Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration. I have also seen a few Neil Young concert movies — including Jonathan Demme‘s beautiful 2006 concert movie, Neil Young: Heart of Gold.

Somehow, when I saw the trailer for Neil Young Journeys (2011), I just didn’t expect it to be another Neil Young concert movie from Jonathan Demme. There was footage of Neil in his hometown, and it looked more biographical, so I added it to our queue. Little did I know that Jonathan Demme has made a freaking trilogy of these things, with 2009’s Neil Young Trunk Show in the middle of the set. It seems like Mr. Demme is into Neil Young.

Neil Young Journeys (2011): Neil with brother Bob Young

Neil Young Journeys is a concert documentary. It’s Neil performing in Toronto on the last two nights of his Le Noise tour, on May 10 & 11, 2011. It’s also got some biographical content. Between songs, there are short clips of Neil inexplicably driving someone’s 1956 Ford Crown Victoria around his childhood home of Omemee, Ontario and reminiscing about his youth along the budding landscape. Neil’s brother Bob spends most of the time up ahead in an old Cadillac, but gets out to join Neil in stumbling around in some weeds where … their childhood home once stood? Lost in a fire? We never hear the full story.

This drive eventually takes us to Toronto’s hallowed Massey Hall, where we are, of course, already enjoying Neil’s concert. It’s a solo performance on the ancient stage — a massive organ, a rickety piano, an arsenal of electric and acoustic guitars, and Neil Young.

The concert is an assortment of older and newer material, both acoustic and electric. Neil, wearing a tattered old hat and several days of beard growth, is like an old master artist alone in his studio, showing us his renowned works along with some lesser pieces that all bear his distinctive signature. He has perfect control of his voice and his guitars, from violent slashes to subtle quavers. He applies impressionistic dabs here and there, thumps his strings, curls his toes, breathes out a long, resonating high note that echoes in the darkness, accepts the applause, and moves on to another.

Here are the songs Neil plays, each shown in its entirety:

  1. Peaceful Valley Boulevard
  2. Ohio
  3. Down by the River
  4. Sign of Love
  5. Rumbling
  6. Love and War
  7. Leia
  8. After the Gold Rush
  9. I Believe in You
  10. My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue)
  11. You Never Call
  12. Hitchhiker
  13. Walk With Me

Plus, his performance of “Helpless” is heard during the film’s end credits.

Demme’s presentation of all this is an odd and moving mixed bag. There’s plenty of fine concert footage, and some strange choices. During “Ohio,” the filmmaker inserts archival footage of the 1970 Kent State shootings — and the date of this horror, and the names of the four deceased, and their photos — to … remind younger listeners of the song’s reference? The audience — mostly absent from the film except to applaud after songs or hoot approvingly at mentions of hockey or getting high — is scanned briefly at one point with the house lights on, under a peculiar grainy effect. A time-lapse shot of Massey Hall’s exterior reveals that nothing happens out there all day. Now and then, Neil is briefly seen as a speck from the farthest possible reaches of the theater. For a little while, the lid of the piano annoyingly blocks the singer.

Neil Young's whiskers in Neil Young Journeys (2011 movie)

The absolute weirdest thing, though, is the camera that Demme has apparently affixed to Neil’s microphone stand. It’s aimed straight at Neil while he sings — but not straight at his entire face, mostly just at the lower portion of Neil’s mouth and chin, and the scraggly beard on his neck. We get to really study Neil’s whiskers. Then, after a small drop of saliva flies from Neil’s mouth and lands on the camera’s lens, we continue to watch this odd chin whisker shot for a good while longer, with the added drop of spit partially obscuring things.

Although unsettling at first, an overall effect gradually emerges. In a close shot, the guitarist’s beat-up instrument and his gnarled old hands remind me of a giant tortoise, ambling along as always, while other beings come and go. You might look into the animal’s eye and try to find something in common, without success. It’s just this astonishing old creature doing what it has always done, and you’re whoever you are.

I rate Neil Young Journeys three stars out of four.

It helps if you’re into Neil Young.

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