Neil Young ~ Heart of Gold

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Neil Young ~ Heart of Gold

Neil Young ~ Heart of Gold
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Music icon Neil Young joins forces with filmmaking maestro Jonathan Demme as they journey to the Ryman Auditorium in Nasheville, Tennessee, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry, for a two-night concert. Backed up by his veteran band of musicians and singers, Young reprises the songs from his latest album, “Prairie Wind,” for his adoring followers in “Neil Young: Heart of Gold.”

Demme, who showed his concert filmmaking chops some 15 years ago with the Talking Heads’ “Stop Making Sense,” comes back to the stage and, once again, shows that he is indeed the master of the genre. Starting the film with short interviews with all the players, Demme sets the stage, so to speak, for the real reason behind Neil Young: Heart of Gold.”

Months before the concert, Young was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain aneurysm that, fortunately, was successfully treated. The incident was a point of reflection for Young who, between the diagnosis and the successful surgery, penned the songs that would become the “Prairie Wind” album. For the concert film, Young, with his master players backing him up – including Emmylou Harris, Pegi Young (the song-meister’s wife), bandleader/pedal steel guitar master Ben Keith and a host of others – mixes the new songs from his latest with such Neil Young classics as Heart of Gold” and “Old Man” (whish takes on a new resonance for both Young and us).

Demme puts a unique touch on his chronicle of the two-night concert at the historic Ryman Auditorium. Using eight stationary cameras and a mobile Steadicam, the filmmakers capture the performance primarily in extreme close-up and mid-shots, using long shots sparingly and only when the stage is chock full of performances – which include, besides Neil’s large band of regular players, the Fisk University Jubilee Singers and the Nashville String Machine. Instead of constant camera work to bridge between songs, Demme fades to black with only the audience applause heard, then it’s on to the next song, of which there are 20 or more.

This is a unique concert film in that there is nary a glimpse of the audience during the entire film. The only time you even see the legendary hall (famous for its acoustic perfection) is when Young, alone on stage, performs to an empty Ryman Auditorium as the end credits roll. Also unusual is the fact that you also never see the members of Demme’s large camera crew led by Ellen Kuras (except for one brief look, in the background, of a cameraman getting into position) during the entire performance. This is a concert film that that focuses on the man, his band and their music.

Michael Zansky’s production design is simple yet elegant with sepia-toned rustic backdrops that elicit the tone of the “Prairie Wind” music. The big finale uses the windowed wall of the auditorium with everyone, and there must be 30 or more musicians and singers, in front. Andy Keir’s beautiful editing job complements the concert shoot techs perfectly.

Neil Young: Heart of Gold” has a ready-made audience of the musician’s fans and those who have grown up with Young’s decades-spanning music career. But, the music is so well crafted I hope that the film will draw a new audience to appreciate the work of this music icon. I give it an A-.

After receiving news that he had a potentially life threatening brain aneurysm, singer/songwriter Neil Young began writing and recording his "Prairie Wind" album, which wife Pegi describes as 'like his life flashing before his eyes.'  Thankfully, Young survived and debuted his new work, along with such classics as "Old Man" and "Heart of Gold" during two performances at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry.  Former collaborator (Young penned the Oscar nominated song for "Philadelphia") and music doc maestro ("Stop Making Sense"), director Jonathan Demme ("The Silence of the Lambs") was there to capture the magic in "Neil Young ~ Heart of Gold."

Although Neil Young certainly doesn't produce my style of music, I have an affection for the guy based on my teenaged best friend's love of his "Harvest" album.  I must have heard it a hundred times over a year of two.  That combined with Jonathan Demme's proven ability to make an inventive music documentary made me think this might be special and my instincts were right on the money.  Fans of Young will be over the moon for "Heart of Gold" and even non-fans should find themselves drawn in by this engrossing, even moving, documentary.

Demme starts off by introducing Young's band, the friends he has played with for years both live and in the studio, as they make their way to the auditorium, sharing stories in the back seats of cars.  Once they are assembled, Young and company kick off into his "Prairie Wind" album (which admittedly starts off with a bang, but falters occasionally).  Young reaches back to his boyhood, reflects on 9/11 and his father's recent death.  His between song banter is both humorous and moving, like when he describes his dad's dementia as 'seeing your loved ones living in the moment.'  There's a poignancy hearing Young's "Heart of Gold" refrain, 'and I'm gettin' old,' almost a quarter of a century later and a bit of awe that the voice sounds so much the same.  "Old Man" benefits from its backstory, the response of a twenty-four year-old self-described 'rich hippie' to an old ranch caretaker.  Young's frequent glances at wife Pegi add to the feeling of family he creates and his lyrics may sometimes be simple, but they're always invested with weight.

Demme and cinematographer Ellen Kuras ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") utilized eight stationery cameras and one Steadicam which keep us focused on the players - neither the film's technicians nor the audience is seen throughout. The film's musicians keep reconfiguring on stage, going from intimate groupings to full scale productions - one minute Emmy Lou Harris is a backup singer in the background, the next she's accompanying Young.  The 12-piece Nashville String Machine and the Fisk University Jubilee Singers make appearances.  The stage has three backdrops - a prairie scape given various monochromatic color washes, a prairie ranch living room and the Ryman's own stained glass windows.  In one particularly good bit of staging, Young is spotlit as he sings "Falling Off the Face of the Earth," his bandmates circling him in the shadows, giving the effect of a campfire.

"Neil Young ~ Heart of Gold" is an affecting performance, an emotional tapestry of a man's history, and Jonathan Demme's film gets to its beating heart.

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