You may regard Neil Young as 75% relentless preacher, 25% creaky balladeer, and 100% annoying performer, whose own act doesn’t touch the entertainment value of Jimmy-Fallon-as-Young doing “Pants on the Ground.” But watch Neil Young Trunk Show, Jonathan Demme’s capture of two concerts at Pennsylvania’s Tower Theatre, however, and you’ll likely come away with a different impression: Young can still rock.
The Rachel Getting Married director, who also filmed Young for 2006’s Heart of Gold, spent more time with the singer during 2007’s Chrome Dreams II tour. But Demme keeps the behind-the-scenes footage to a minimum, instead splicing the best of both concerts together for a mostly-music 82 minutes. That said, the film includes one touching and revealing offstage moment, when Young meets with some special-needs kids before the show, whispering to one boy and making him beam. (Both of Young’s sons suffer from cerebral palsy; and his daughter inherited his epilepsy.)
The film starts in grainy Super 8 as “Sad Movies” plays over clips from the shows. Then when it’s time to train the camera on Young and his band (Ben Keith, Ralph Molina, Rick Rosas, Anthony “Sweet Pea” Crawford, and wife Pegi Young) on stage. Here Demme goes high-def: you can see every crag in Young’s face, his thinning hair blowin’ in his self-generated head-bobbing wind… and, occasionally, virtually up his nose, given the director’s preference for upward shots. The stage itself is nearly a character, with one man painting canvasses as if alone in his studio and various tchotkes scattered about.
There’s a bit of fancy filmmaking at the beginning, with Young superimposed and then multiplied over a background scan of the set. But soon the decoration is ditched — and not only is nothing lost, the momentum of the concert is gained. Young admits backstage that he’s happy about his latest performances, saying that although back in the day he’d “get into it and I’d be rockin’ with the [Crazy] Horse,” he can now play more variety with his current lineup. With the exception of a few slower numbers (“Ambulance Blues,” “Mexico”), however, Young still rocks with the Trunk Show, which is dominated by the 64-year-old’s most combustive singles such as “Spirit Road” and “Dirty Old Man.”
The highlight of the film by far is “No Hidden Path.” For 21 minutes (!), Young and his crack band tightly manipulate this epic jam as most of the audience infuriatingly stands — or, worse, sits — still. Eventually Young’s whaling on his trusted Gibson does wake them up, and he earns every whoo! — after often looking as if he were in pain. Not “pain” pain, of course, but the glorious affliction of becoming One With Old Black.
“No Hidden Path” is especially transcendent, but Trunk Show as a whole will leave any music lover giddy. It earns the highest compliment a concert film can get: you forget you’re watching a movie and instead feel like you’ve got the best seats in the house.