|Neil Young - Heart of Gold|
|Written by Mike Levy|
|Tuesday, 13 June 2006|
Director Jonathan Demme’s (“Stop Making Sense,” “Silence of the Lambs”) eloquent “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” documents last year’s world premiere of the legendary singer’s Prairie Wind concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. Once the home of the Grand Ole Opry, the historic Ryman is a fitting setting for a concert featuring Prairie Wind’s nostalgic themes. Aging, the death of a parent, friends present and past, and dreams both realized and lost—Young focuses on the concerns of a generation whose children have moved away from home and are now coming to grips with life in their 50’s and 60’s.
The film opens with shots of Nashville—not the overly slick, modern Nashville of Garth Brooks and Toby Keith, where commercial tunes are cranked out as fodder for Country radio, but the traditional Nashville of Hank Williams and “Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.” In this Nashville, music still speaks to America as a whole, rather than to Red or Blue states. A Nashville that is “… a dream, only a dream. A memory fading away.”
The concert, itself, begins with “The Painter,” a song that sets the stage for the evening’s contemplations “on the long road behind us” and the dreams that formed roads not taken. Not quite Country, not quite Folk, you catch yourself singing along, even if it is your first exposure to the tune. The songs of Prairie Wind are very melodic, with an acoustic lilt that often conceals a more melancholy undertone. This dichotomy provides a dreamlike quality that pervades the entire production.
A little over four months before the concert, while recording “The Painter” for the album, Young was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm. Final songs for the album were written and recorded after Young underwent surgery for the life-threatening condition. Coupled with the then recent death of his father, the impact of his medical problem on the singer/songwriter is evident. Young’s songs drift in and out of reveries of people and things no longer with us, and how their loss reflects on our own mortality.
“No Wonder” begins as a Folk song, but quickly moves into the darker regions of Rock. The simple life is interrupted by the modern horrors of 9/11 and threatened by our dependence on foreign oil. “Amber fields of grain” supply miles of natural fuel, much as the birds and the caribou supply our sustenance. Nature provides, as politicians dawdle, and life’s clock ticks away the time we have remaining. Still, Young provides a ray of hope. We meet a young couple being wed in a church that still stands after the Twin Towers collapse. Life goes on.
“Falling Off the Face of the Earth” is a deceptively simple lyric that speaks volumes about how being near death brings a deeper appreciation of a friend’s love.
“Far From Home” also touches on death, but in almost a joking manner. Memories from childhood are seen to shape the man, “so bury me on the prairie where the buffalo used to roam, you won’t have to shed a tear for me ‘cause then I won’t be far from home.”
The film shifts in tone as fading memories of things destroyed by so-called “progress” become “only a dream.” Demme cleverly stages “It’s a Dream” in a series of long dissolves, using the image of guitarist Grant Boatwright as the fading specter of memories past.
The imagery of unrecoverable lost memories fading into visionary dream states continues with the song, “Prairie Wind.” These extremely personal lyrics attempt to come to grips with Neil Young’s father’s dementia and recent death. It is hard not to be touched as Young’s eyes begin to tear in introducing the song. The apocalyptic imagery and Native American allusions build to a crescendo where good and evil fight for dominance, and the vision of an unknown future is merely a mirage. Painfully, the solutions to these enigmas are lost in the dementia of a father’s memory. “Prairie Wind” is the most powerful moment of the concert, and Demme’s understated use of camera perfectly counterpoints the surrealism of Young’s lyrics.
Young lightens the tone a bit with the next two songs. “Here For You” is a tender expression of love for a daughter who has “left the nest,” while “This Old Guitar” is an ode to the living spirit of a cherished Martin guitar. During the song, Young plays a Martin once owned by Hank Williams, mirroring the concert’s evocation of a more authentic time in country music when Williams was a regular at the Ryman.
Up to this point, Demme’s film faithfully follows the song order of the Prairie Wind album. The next song on the album would have been “He Was the King,” a tribute to Elvis. However, this tune does not appear in the film and instead can be found as bonus material on the DVD. Although “He Was the King” contains some great instrumental and vocal work, it is more lightweight than the other songs in the film, and probably wouldn’t have worked as well as an introduction to the next and final selection from Prairie Wind, the beautiful, “When God Made Me.”
The gospel song questions whether God had the restrictions of today’s “religious right” in mind when creating the human race. Although the lyrics are often biting, Young sings them in such a reverent manner, that even a Jerry Falwell might find them inspirational.
Demme, concerned that a concert film less than an hour in length would not be releasable, convinced Young to fill out the performance with a number of classic Young tunes.
The songs that follow; “I Am a Child,” “Harvest Moon,” “Heart of Gold,” “Old Man,” “Needle and the Damage Done,” “Old King,” “Comes a Time,” “One of These Days,” and the “Old Laughing Lady” were all written by Young. In addition, Young and the band perform the classic Ian and Sylvia folk ballad, “Four Strong Winds.”
These songs deal with age, death and nostalgia, and although not written for this concert, each song fits well into the moods and themes of the overall work. It is interesting that Young wrote “I Am a Child” at 22, during his days with the Buffalo Springfield, and “Old Man” at the age of 24.
In stark contrast to the high-speed cutting of most music videos, Jonathan Demme wisely lets shots linger on screen for the audience to savor. Although similar in style to Demme’s “Stop Making Sense”, “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” makes greater use of extreme close-ups. The age lines and white hair of the performers, seen in close-up, amplify the influence of their generation on the music.
The Prairie Wind section of the film was shot primarily with eight cameras from the back of the Ryman Auditorium, using extremely long lenses. This made the visual recording process virtually invisible to the musicians. Only during the second section of the concert is a somewhat obtrusive roving Steadicam added to the stage. It is Demme’s sparse style and his sensitivity to the music that make Neil Young: Heart of Gold stand out from other recent concert films.
The audio work is, for the most part, very good. The recording quality seems to improve in the second half of the film. Although the mix is impeccable, it is a pity that the entire film doesn’t have the audio clarity found on the last song “Old Laughing Lady.” It is performed by Young solo, in an empty Ryman Auditorium, as end titles scroll across the screen. The final title dedicates the film to “Daddy.”
“Neil Young: Heart of Gold” is a rare glimpse into the concerns occupying the minds of Young’s generation. However, lest you sense that Young is growing too mellow and introspective in his later years, after Prairie Wind, Young released Living With War, a ragged grunge rock album asking for the impeachment of President Bush. “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” doesn’t mark a phase of “fading away,” but instead, a moment of necessary contemplation that can only be expressed by someone of Young’s maturity.