Fact: If you’re Neil Young you can do whatever you want. So it’s no skin off the venerable Canadian rocker’s nose if you’ve seen him work with director Jonathan Demme before––twice, no less––or if you’re convinced that a movie that tracks the titular character as he pokes around his old hometown in northern Ontario with his brother, then drives to––and plays––a gig sounds boring. Because he’s Neil Young and he’s working with Jonathan Demme it won’t be boring––none of it, not even the parts where he pokes around his old hometown; because he’s playing a whole bunch of recent material in the live setting––all alone––it also won’t be boring.
Demme makes great concert movies––his best effort is probably Storefront Hitchcock, a 1998 affair that paired him with another uncompromising weirdo, Robyn Hitchcock. Filmed in a disused shop in New York, the passerby became a subtle but welcome guest in a film with an ostensibly Big Star at the forefront. Neil Young’s a Big Star, too, but by tooling around with him before the gig at Massey Hall and hearing him rap endlessly about his life in a northern town between performance footage, we see how such ordinary activity humanizes him and makes his brilliant but subtle songs, somehow, more meaningful.
“Peaceful Valley Boulevard”, which opens the performance sequences, has a deeper resonance somehow when juxtaposed with the more personal clips. Seeing Young in close up––every line on his face and wrinkle of his hands up for intense viewing––is equally humanizing. Whereas some stars are shot in the most flattering light possible, it’s clear that that’s neither the subjects nor the director’s aim here. We’re to see all those years and to even hear them in the voice of our hero whose, admittedly, seems far, far from spent no matter that the wear and tear shows.
Although the focus is on more recent music a powerful reading of 1970’s “Ohio” resonates with loudly with the contemporary viewer––it’s as resonant as any of the newer material (“Rumbling”, “Love and War”). Because this is Neil Young, not everything is going to be musical gold but because this is Neil Young those lackluster moments are also more forgivable––note the childlike “Leia”––but those moments are also rare in a film that doesn’t demand an extraordinary amount of time from the viewer/listener and which is also refreshingly narrow in its focus.
As for the rest? Of course “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” is powerful, and of course “You Never Call” is as poignant and haunting as one could hope for from a Neil Young composition. So, there’s not much more to stay about a film that is almost confounding in its simplicity and lack of pretension––a home movie, almost, about one of the greatest living musicians by one of our greatest living directors––other than that for Neil Young fans, it’s just further proof of his unique genius.
The extras found on the DVD include the theatrical trailer for the film as well as a making of documentary (unimaginatively titled “Making Journeys”), which is mercifully short and explains the genesis of the Young/Demme relationship, among other things. There’s also a half-hour interview with Demme and Young with 92 Y (Young is either uncomfortable of surly––or both), and another half hour doc on the pair’s journey to Slamdance featuring a Q&A with the pair.
Neil Young Journeys isn’t going to reinvent the rock doc and it’s not going to be the last statement from Young on film, either. It seems fitting that a man who has been obsessive in archiving his own career would have as many films made about him and his performances as Young has.