Dir. Jonathan Demme, US, 2006, 103 mins
Cast: Neil Young
Review by Richard Mellor
Sometimes, you wonder quite why a film has been released. Perhaps this is simply because it is terrible or the zillionth entry in a seriously over-subscribed genre. In the case of Jonathan Demme’s latest, it’s because Neil Young: Heart of Gold is in fact just a concert recording, destined to confer delight upon only a minute number of people.
After five paltry minutes’ worth of interviews with Neil Young and his band (most of whom drawl incomprehensively), it becomes clear that the singer is in Nashville just after a brain operation and due to showcase his new album over two shows at the city’s historic Ryman Arena.
Those facts having been established, Demme cuts to the now full and darkened arena focusing eight cameras on the stage. Up goes the curtain, there is Young and entourage, and off we go. For the next 95 minutes, Young performs his new album in its entirety, chats with the drooling audience and then plays a few hits at the end.
The film closes with a shot of Young performing one last song on stage after everyone has left, apparently a tradition of his. The credits roll and that’s that. During Young’s performance, Demme’s film never once leaves the stage; in fact his various cameras never move at all, only shifting focus and sharpness on occasion.
The experience is, obviously, like watching a concert – at the end of each song, there’s a compulsion to clap until the reality of being in a cinema kicks in. Young is not the most charismatic; while he relates through the odd enjoyable anecdote on stage and plays very well, he is not ‘dramatic’. Similarly Demme’s film is decidedly dull: song follows song, follows song, follows…
Demme claims in the production notes that he has filmed a ‘dream concert’, as the complexities and dramas of Young’s brain are ‘narrated’ by each song. While the film is certainly dreamy and pleasantly so – lights and bodies are often cleverly blurred, while each performer is garbed in traditional outfits – it’s still just concert footage. A Mr Men book contains more in the way of storylines and thrills.
Inscrutable motive aside, there are elements of Demme’s film decidedly worth cherishing. On offer is an intimate portrait of band chemistry, psychology and interplay that cannot possibly be appreciated from amid a dense crowd. Each musician, from Young himself down to his Jubilee singing band relies on, and works with, the rest in delightful tandem.
Another realisation dawns as Young sets off on track seven or eight or something of his latest release: this iPod generation of ours has become obsessed by singles. The notion of sitting down and listening wholly to an artist’s album today seems totally outmoded. Demme’s film reminds us of the beauty of albums: the way a set of songs can support each other to forge a collective whole.
Yet this remains an account of a Neil Young concert alluring only to Neil Young fans. It’s high-end, exquisite fan-club fare – but fan-club fare nevertheless. A must-see for adorers of the musician; a rather trying must-flee for anyone else.