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Neil Young Journeys

August 2, 2012
Neil Young Journeys

“Old man, take a look at my life”, sang Neil Young in 1972 at the age of 26. Four decades later he might have directed those words at himself as he played a powerful solo appearance in Toronto’s Massey Hall. If he did, he and director Jonathan Demme decided not to include it in the concert film, Neil Young Journeys, and it shows a certain restraint and taste on their part not to go in such an obvious direction.

Instead, the set list is drawn primarily from Young’s 2010 album, Le Noise — his thirty-third studio release. The tone is reflective and contemplative, turning from the political in “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” to the personal in “Sign of Love”, and bringing in the resigned perspective of age in “Love and War”.

This is far from Young’s first time working with Demme; in fact, it stands at the end of a trilogy. 2006’s Neil Young: Heart of Gold featured the acoustic sound of Young’s Prairie Wind album, and 2009’s Neil Young: Trunk Show focused more on his harder-rocking side. Neil Young Journeys is far from unplugged, but it’s not exactly rocking either. Instead, Young’s voice squeaks through decades of fatigue, anger, and pain, showing that he has what it takes to sing the blues.

It’s almost hard to believe that Young is alone on stage, particularly when he extracts a clearly-fingered melody and a thundering bass line from the same set of strings. And yet the wide shots show him sharing the darkened stage with only a couple pianos, an organ, half a dozen guitars and amps, and a cigar-store Indian.

The stage footage is cut together with some handheld video shot as Neil and his brother, Bob, drive from their childhood home in “sleepy little” Omemee, Ontario down to Massey Hall. Neil muses about growing up, though never with much of a point; it’s a laid-back road trip, heading somewhere, but in no particular hurry to get there.

In the hall, Demme has a handful of hand-held cameras moving around along with a number of fixed positions, including one particularly unusual one placed just below Neil’s microphone. Other than some odd visuals, though, Demme doesn’t really add much to the songs. The only notable exception is in “Ohio”, which he reinforces with some footage from Kent State. The effect is powerful and moving as Young’s voice cracks out “four dead in Ohio” over and over. But it primed me for similar illustrations later on, which never really materialized.

Still, if Demme fails to capitalize on all the potential, he and his sound team do a fabulous job with the really important part of a concert film: the music. This is deep-down, grungy blues like few play it anymore, and Young brings a worn, world-weariness to it that stops just this side of haggard in his cream jacket and matching scuffed-up fedora.

Captain Beefheart said never to wipe the sweat off your instrument, saying, “You need that stink on there. Then you have to get that stink onto your music.” Neil Young has forty years of stink on his music; that’s what makes him sound so good.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: if it applies, fail.

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