Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads film, Stop Making Sense, is one of the best concert documentaries ever made. Now he’s done the same favour for Neil Young, who was just recovering from a brain aneurysm when he delivered this two-part country set in Nashville. The title itself is something of a misnomer, or a hard sell (take your pick) since the first part of the concert is Young’s Prairie Wind album in its totality. It’s only in part two that Young gets the back catalogue out, mostly songs from Harvest, After the Gold Rush and Harvest Moon, his slight return to the acoustic-y banjo-y style of Harvest.
As with Stop Making Sense Demme starts slow, not with the empty stage/boombox this time but right up close, with lots of yellow filtration, the age written on the musicians’ faces being Demme’s focus, this being a look back from the mountain top at the path ascended. Young is also in reflective mood, as you might be if you’d been on an operating table only recently, and in confessional mood too – he owns up to being a country guy, admitting that he used to think of himself as a bit of a hippie (like it was some dark chapter in his life), and how, as soon as he earned enough money, he bought a farm. See, country. Hence the importance of Hank Williams’s guitar, which he now owns, and which Young spends quite a bit of time talking about on stage, in almost mystical terms. Between these bits of stage chat we meet members of the band, who seem to genuinely love the boss, then it’s back to the stage. There’s no point pretending that Young looks like the handsome, rangy guy he did in his youth. He doesn’t, in fact he looks like a seedcorn salesman.
But his looks are entirely appropriate. This is a folksy, unashamedly sentimental, nostalgic event, with Young telling stories of dads and daughters, the old times, the folly of youth. It is very poignant. As for the music, it is note perfect, with Emmylou Harris pitching in on backing vocals, helping the likes of pedal-steel king Ben Keith turn what could have been a run-through of familiar songs into an evening of lush, almost agonising sweetness. Yes, I’m a Young fan, but I’d never have expected that watching him on film would bring a tear to the eye.
Neil Young: Heart of Gold – at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2006