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Film looks back on Young’s career

MATT JAMES Of the Record staff
Neil Young plays a Hank Williams guitar in Neil Young: Heart of Gold. Photo credit: Bob Vergara.
2Prairie-Wind

As the curtains part, Neil Young is standing at the center of the stage. Dressed in a grey, Western-style suit with a white cowboy hat pulled low over his eyes, he’s a commanding presence, half Hank Williams, half Old-West sheriff. He’s relaxed, poised. He plays an old, scratched acoustic guitar. It once belonged to Hank Williams.

A full concert follows, full of close-ups showing Young’s every expression, and including those of each of his accompanying performers, from his wife, Pegi Young, and his traveling band, to Emmylou Harris who provides backing vocals. The film runs seamlessly, slipping from one take to another right up to the end, where, as the credits roll, Young is shown, sitting in a chair, alone on the stage, playing a song.

Watching the film Wednesday at the Sundance Resort, not a soul moved until the last credit rolled off the screen.

"Neil Young: Heart of Gold," tells the story of Young’s two performances in the Ryman Auditorium once home to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn. But, aside from a few brief interviews to begin the film, director Jonathan Demme tells the story exclusively through Young’s songs. The camera never pans across the crowd or cuts to an interview. Once the concert begins, the view never wanders from the stage. But, Demme noted, "Neil Young: Heart of Gold," is not a concert film. Rather, he said, it tells a story.

"The story," he said, "is a concert."

The film is the final result of a collaboration between Demme and Young. A longtime fan of Young’s, Demme called the musician about making a documentary about his work.

"When John called the first time, I didn’t have anything going," said Young, "but the second time, I had just recorded ‘Prairie Wind.’"

The film features the first live performance of the album, Young’s newest, followed by 10 of Young’s older songs mostly from "Harvest" and "Harvest Moon" all played acoustic on the Ryman stage.

"We worked together on almost every aspect of it," said Demme.

Written and recorded in 2005 after Young was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm, "Prairie Wind," comes from much the same mold as "Harvest" and "Harvest Moon," which were recorded 33 and 23 years earlier, respectively. But at the same time, the new album carries added measures of wisdom and introspection. The songs talk about the land, about family, history and growing old. They seem to sum up a significant part of Young’s career.

According to Young, when he got together with Demme to talk about the film, they discussed all the different elements that would go into the performance. They talked about the old analog recording methods Young prefers and Nashville, where he has long recorded and performed. They talked about the Ryman, in which so much history has taken place, and the members of Young’s band, all of whom come from his circle of friends and family.

"We were talking about all these things," said Young. "Finally we settled on just doing a concert in a time period, kind of a period piece."

But Demme and Young set up no normal concert.

"Every song we treated differently," said Young, "like a whole new set."

For each of the songs, the band rearranged their instruments and adjusted the microphones, so they could play and record the songs in the best possible way. Then, the group rehearsed for the show for 14 days, so they knew exactly how to set up and play each one.

For the final concert, Young and the rest of the players were dressed in outfits created by costume designer Manuel; they evoked old-time Americana and country music. A series of backdrops, with saturated yellows, golds, blues and reds, completed the scene, setting the stage for the performance.

There, the audience and the stage’s surroundings disappear, and the film’s viewers are left to focus only on Young and the other performers as they play out their story.

"To me, it’s not a band," said Demme. "It’s a bunch of characters."

Those characters are revealed through Demme’s close-ups, while at the same time, the audience both in the auditorium and in theater is immersed in the songs and their lyrics.

The film, Demme said, was designed to emphasize the expressiveness of both Young and his songs, while at the same time using and revealing the experience present in the band and the history inherent in the Ryman. Young talked about a presence he could feel and almost see a sort of spirit audience that revealed itself in the film.

"That, to me, was fascinating when I watched the film for the first time," he said. "They’re interacting; they’re interacting with the audience."

He said he only looked out at the audience once, when he noticed a friend in the first row during the first song he played.

"Aside from that," he said, "we were really trying to deliver the songs."

The effort shows, both on his face and in his music throughout the film. With Demme’s direction and Young’s songs, the concert flows.

"It’s almost like a dream," said Young. "You don’t see all these ancillary things."

And the film does play out much like a dream, as if the viewer isn’t actually in the audience, but, as Young and Demme both noted, floating above it or with the performers on the stage.

With this perspective, the audience is left with a particular memory, of Young playing his guitar on stage, in the old Western suit and a flat-brimmed cowboy hat strumming a guitar that last played in the Ryman by Young’s estimate in 1951. And there, with history in his hands and an outfit at home in the West, the spirit of Young’s music, and the film, is revealed.

For more information about "Neil Young: Heart of Gold" visit http://www.sundance.org.


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