PHILADELPHIA — Along with an Academy Award-winning career directing dramatic films — he won for “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) — Jonathan Demme has a nice little sideline making music movies.
Mixed in among standouts such as “Melvin and Howard” (1980), “Something Wild” (1986), and “Rachel Getting Married” (2008), the 66-year-old director has captured an assortment of his favorite musicians in performance, including Talking Heads in “Stop Making Sense” (1984), the eccentric British songwriter Robyn Hitchcock in “Storefront Hitchcock” (1998), and the titular Canadian rock iconoclast in “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” (2006).
Demme is back with a second feature-length Young movie called “Neil Young Trunk Show,” titled to reflect both the assortment of oddities assembled on stage and the spontaneous, grab-bag nature of the performance. It was filmed by six cameramen plus Demme himself over two scintillating shows at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Pa., in December 2007.
As far as Demme is concerned, Young is an inexhaustible subject. The surfeit of Young movies — including, among others, “Rust Never Sleeps” (1979), which Young directed under the nom de cinema Bernard Shakey — is no reason not to make more. This week, Demme spoke from his home in New York about “Trunk Show,” his passion for making movies immersed in music, and Young’s talent for giving good “guitar face.”
Q: So when you finished “Heart of Gold,” did you know you wanted to make another Neil Young movie?
A: Well, I knew I wanted to get back in Neil Young’s world. Then when they went out on tour for Chrome Dreams II in 2007, Elliot Roberts invited me to take a look. The show was lit by (“Trunk Show” lighting designer) Peggy Eisenhauer, and it had a particularly interesting visual quality. ... My only reservation was I didn’t want it to be another “Heart of Gold.” ... With “Heart of Gold,” Neil and I were like Siamese twins from the get-go. With this one he just said: Do it.
Q: “Heart of Gold” is so calm, and “Trunk Show” is wild and unruly. It’s sort of the yin to “Heart of Gold’s” yang.
A: Yeah, and we were honoring Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry with “Heart of Gold.” With this, in my head I was thinking we should really take a punk approach. Get there, shoot it, in your face, try to capture it. And the thing we were trying to honor was the unhinged spirit of rock ‘n’ roll.
You’ve been to Neil’s live shows, right? I finally got to see him live in the 1990s. Isn’t it true that there’s that thing that happens at a Neil Young rock ‘n’ roll show where you don’t want the song to end? You’re like, “Is this going to be the end? No, they’re building it up again. Here we go. ...” I love that.
Q: In “Trunk Show” you captured one of those monster jams in its entirety. “No Hidden Path” lasts for 23 minutes.
A: When we filmed “No Hidden Path,” I thought, obviously this is too long to be in a movie. But what if it could be? So in the cutting room, what we wound up doing was justifying our choices by saying, how do we get “No Hidden Path” in there? There’s no rule that you have to be chronological, or acoustic comes first, and electric last. So we kept alternating, and altering the mood. But it had everything to do with justifying this giant epic in the middle.
Q: Why did you shoot it at the Tower?
A: Neil’s thing was, “I want to play in theaters where there are lots of ghosts.” Not just rock ‘n’ roll, but classical, vaudeville, whatever. ... You’ll see there’s some grainy footage in there, shot from the balcony. Those are ghost views, suggesting the ghosts came out and watched a little bit of the show. Neil conceived of it as a valentine to performers, and performance. I like that and I was moved by it. The Tower was a two-night stand, and Neil thought it was particularly beautiful. So we jumped on the train from New York and came down, set up and shot.
Q: With “Philadelphia,” “Beloved” and now this, that makes three in your Philadelphia oeuvre.
A: That’s right! And one in the 21st century now.
Q: How did the Tower suit you?
A: It was great. Don’t we love those shrines? That great marquee. I hadn’t even thought of the need for an exterior shot, but as soon as we rolled up I thought, “OK, that’s in.”
You know, I love this movie. It’s a dreadful thing to say, but I have to say it. I love it and I feel like I’m sucked inside the music by the way some of these (camera operators) shot it.
Q: The cameras linger on Young’s face, and his hands. You made a movie about Neil Young’s face.
A: Does everybody talk about guitar face, or is that just my wife? No one gives guitar face like Neil Young. And piano face! And I love him for that. He doesn’t care what he looks like. Zero ego. This is actually something he said to me: “I don’t have a bad side, because I don’t have a good side.”
Q: You’ve got a lot of cameras working in this movie, but you never fall into that quick-cutting trap.
A: If you’ve got fantastic musicians playing, don’t you want to watch them? There’s been some amazing stuff done with the quick-cut style. But I just believe that there are people who want a concert experience — and want to trip out on the music.
Q: Is there going to be a third Neil Young movie?
A: I’m praying there’s going to be a third. It’s not about matched sets. It’s about trilogies, at least in the world of Neil Young. We’ve bandied a couple of ideas about. We’ve done two, we’ve got to do three.
Q: You use a lot of musicians as actors in your films. Robyn Hitchcock in “The Manchurian Candidate,” Tunde Adebimpe (of TV on the Radio) in “Rachel Getting Married.” Why?
A: If you get up on stage in front of the microphone and you carry people away with your performance, it’s not going to be that hard to talk good, too.
Q: What’s your next non-music movie going to be?
A: It’s an animated movie. I’m in an intense stage of development on Dave Eggers’ brilliant new book “Zeitoun.” The focus is on a family, a husband and wife going through extraordinary experiences related to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. It’s drawn animation.
I’m also working with Walter Mosley on his latest book, which is a contemporary noir mystery set in New York called “The Long Fall.” The world Walter’s created is way too rich to be a film, so Walter and I are working on it as a limited 12-part series for HBO.
Q: Do you think you’ll ever get as much music in a movie as in “Rachel Getting Married,” which had a score by saxophonist Donald Harrison and oud player Zafir Tawil, plus performances by Adebimpe, Hitchcock, and Sister Carol?
A: We had a blast doing that. Definitely. “Zeitoun” is a perfect example. That will be drenched in music. It’s set in New Orleans, but travels around the country. And Zeitoun is of Syrian descent, and he’s Muslim American, so that opens the door to Arabic music, contemporary and back through time.
Q: So you’ll use New Orleans music as a base, and go all sorts of other places?
A: Yes. It’s obliged to do both. We stuck with the task of including all the idioms of New Orleans music from Louis Armstrong to Lil Wayne.
Q: So what’s your answer to the question, aren’t there enough Neil Young movies already?
A: The stack is way too little. We need more. Absolutely. We need more.
// Notes from the Road
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