Blue, blue windows behind the stars,
Yellow moon on the rise,
Big birds flying across the sky,
Throwing shadows on our eyes.
— Neil Young, “Helpless”
“There’s a picture of me in a cowboy outfit,” remembers Neil Young. And as he does, you see the photo, the child Neil Young in a uniform of some kind and a cowboy hat. He looks directly into the camera, while behind him, three other kids look left, toward an adult. The image is black and white, a town square or street stretching into the background. But no matter what else is in frame, it’s hard to take your eyes off little Neil Young, his face intent and maybe quizzical, challenging and also inviting the camera’s gaze.
The photo appears a couple of times in Neil Young Journeys, the third film Young has made with Jonathan Demme, first near the beginning and then again, the frame pushing in oh so slowly, under the closing credits. It’s a standard sort of shot marking a moment in a young boy’s life. If it’s unclear now what that moment might have been — why he and the other kids were in uniforms, what the man was saying to them, why Neil was looking away from him — it seems to illustrate Young’s version of his childhood, for instance, that at five years old, he was the “premiere fisherman Omemee, Ontario, that he was proud of his dad, a poet for whom a local public school is now named, and that he once “killed a turtle” (“I stuck a firecracker up its ass,” he explains, “My environmental roots are not deep”).
Driving his 1956 Crown Vic, Young takes Demme and cinematographer Declan Quinn on a brief tour of Omemee before they head out onto the highway, following Young’s brother Bob’s car, which proceeds at a perfect speed, he notes, “He’s not going too slow, he’s not going too fast.” They make their way to Toronto’s Massey Hall (“He might get a shot of the car pulling up to Massey Hall,” he doesn’t quite direct), where Young brought his solo concert tour for a couple of nights in 2011. That footage comprises the bulk of the film, and Young on stage alone is an extraordinarily potent act. He performs 12 songs, some from the album, Le Noise, some unreleased, and others from the early ’70s, recalling his album, Live at Massey Hall 1971 (released in 2007). The selection provokes comparisons between then and now, concerning the ever troubling US political landscape.
The first song in the film is “Ohio,” which Young wrote in response to the Kent State killings. “What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground?” he sings, as the film shows footage of the National Guardsmen on campus, then photos of the four dead students. In this and Young’s other songs, including “Down by the River,” “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” or “Feel Your Love,” the guitar sound dense in the way that only Neil Young can make it. The camera during the performances keeps close on him, peering at him through the narrow frame provided by the piano lid, pitched up at from the tiny camera taped to the microphone stand, watching as he paces from speaker to speaker, angling his instrument to create ferocious feedback.
On stage, Young appears alternately engrossed, agitated, and perversely mystical, his eyes often closed as he sings. His performing style is overpowering, a self turned almost desperately inward and also thunderously aware of his listeners, instructing, pushing, and rousing. His music is confessional and accusatory, vulnerable and propulsive. As Young sings about his family — his son Ben (who has cerebral palsy) or daughter (in the unreleased “Leia,” which performance cuts away to a brief home-movie glimpse of the little girl at a piano) — he feels removed and too close at the same time, in a place you’ll never know and also too precisely in the place where you’re breathing, now.
To create this effect, the film rarely cuts to the audience in Massey Hall, and when it does, they’re shadows, backs to you as if you’re standing behind them, straining to see the stage. What you’re straining to see is a mix of past and present, and perhaps –as Young and Demme are working on their fourth collaboration — a future too. Young’s work doesn’t transcend time so much as it brings multiple moments together.
The effect is unlike that of most concert films, which let you imagine or maybe remember a show. Neil Young Journeys, as its title hints, constructs layers of memories and movements. He journeys and he also helps to describe your journeys. When Young sings “Helpless” over the closing credits, you’re invited to look at that small, fierce boy in the cowboy hat again, a shot pressing you ever closer to his face, unreadable and yet as open and haunting as any portrait could be.