Neil Young: Heart of Gold is not Jonathan Demme‘s first concert documentary. He made the Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense in 1984 and Swimming to Cambodia, which captured a monologue by Spalding Gray, in 1987.
As in those two previous films, Demme again imposes a minimum of style on the performance, mostly just showcasing it and allowing you to watch it up close. He frames the stage, or an individual or two, and watches fixedly, without all the quick edits, audience cutaways, and backstage dramas that typically fragment rockumentaries.
Neither is this Neil Young’s first concert documentary. His own film of his 1979 Rust Never Sleeps show caught him in a creative fever, with gigantic microphones and roadies dressed as Star Wars Jawas.
Young can be a tornado onstage. His frenzied playing of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “All Along The Watchtower” during Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration was a vision of pure rock and roll exuberance that I will never forget.
In Heart of Gold, however, we get a calm and impeccably collected Neil Young performing acoustic music as a seasoned expert.
Documented here are songs from two concerts at Nashville’s sacred Ryman Auditorium in August of 2005. That’s when Young, having undergone surgery for a brain aneurysm less than five months previous, returned to Nashville to debut the music from his new record Prairie Wind. The album, recorded in Nashville that spring, gathered a strong group of backing musicians with ties to Young and the city — people like Emmylou Harris, Ben Keith, and Spooner Oldham.
The film opens with brief comments from many of these band members riding in classic cars to the classic venue. The camera spends a moment with the crowd gathered outside, passes the ticket-taker, and then the concert begins. From this point on it’s all performance footage, with brief blackouts between songs — which first are the songs from Prairie Wind, in order, supplemented afterward by an extended encore of acoustic favorites also recorded in Nashville.
Young mostly sits, wearing a hat and playing the Martin D-28 guitar that once belonged to Hank Williams, itself the inspiration for one song. He is a study in easy control. Every note he and his band play and sing is applied like the stroke of a master painter, exactly where it belongs — right down to opening with “The Painter.”
To give you an idea of how focused the show is on quality workmanship as opposed to fireworks, consider that one of its highlights is guitar technician Larry Cragg effectively duplicating James Taylor’s banjo licks on “Old Man” just as they sounded on the original record.
Occasionally speaking to introduce songs, and even joking a little, Young does not seem overly formal or stiff, just very composed and intent. The songs of Prairie Wind absorb his father’s death. His own brush with mortality came while working on the album. He has assembled a band of mostly lifelong friends on the stage of a holy American music temple. The atmosphere is like a recital, a summation of lessons learned.
One of the audiences that could appreciate such a performance best would be fellow musicians. Unfortunately, director Demme does not capture very much of what musicians would most like to see, which is close-up musicianship — fingers and picks on guitar strings, hand placement on keyboards.
This is most frustrating during the end credits when Young, a bespectacled journeyman alone on the stage with his tools, performs “The Old Laughing Lady” to an empty house. The song combines some subtle strumming, unusual chords and chiming with Neil’s trademark thumping bass notes. As someone who occasionally attempts to play guitar, I would like to see what he’s doing. But, to make room for the credits, Young is seen from the side, at the left edge of the screen for the entire tune, and all that can be observed is his guitar’s butt.
Instead, the movie’s most intense close-up gives us Neil Young’s profile during the fulcrum of the show, the hymn “When God Made Me.” It is the last song on the album, and the last song of the concert prior to the encore of old favorites. As the silhouetted Fisk Jubilee Singers softly harmonize and Young tries to get inside God’s mind, Demme takes us beneath the brim of his hat, close enough to whisper in his ear while he spills his yearning lyrics into the microphone. It’s a moment of transcendent intimacy.
Like a sturdy heirloom piece of Shaker furniture, Neil Young: Heart of Gold is a simple, functional, and timeless piece of work from both Young and Jonathan Demme.
However, the persona depicted is only one aspect of a vastly more complex artist. Young may not be in a casket here, but he’s certainly on his best behavior and all dressed up to receive the respects of friends and acquaintances. There is no hint, for example, of the irrepressible, irreverent prophet who wrote “Rockin’ In The Free World.” I would need at least a little of that Neil Young — and some fretboard close-ups — to really love this movie.
Instead, I rate it an appreciative four out of five stars at Netflix.