You can’t really say that Neil Young is underrated, but maybe he hasn’t been given due respect either. Recognized by critics and fans alike as one of the most prolifically productive musicians who link back to the 1960s and 1970s, he’s one of the few whose current work often matches the essential songs he wrote and recorded all those years ago. Certainly, Young has been inconsistent, but that is part of his charm, as he gets each new project done and moves on.
Because he’s so prolific, there hasn’t been time to take the long look back and put his ingenuity into context — until Neil Young: Heart of Gold. At once moving and unsettling, the film includes the debut performances of the songs from Young’s rueful 2005 album, Prairie Wind, recorded over two nights at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium last August. As the performance took only about 45 minutes, Jonathan Demme had Young perform a second set of complementary songs from his country/folk catalog to fill out a feature film. The other songs — including “Old Man,” “I Am A Child,” and “The Old Laughing Lady” — match the theme of Prairie Wind, which charts a coming to terms with mortality and illness, the inexorability of change and aging.
Together, Young and Demme make the graying of the quintessential baby boom musician a triumph to be celebrated. Heart of Gold, which made a cursory tour of theaters after premiering at Sundance, is not a typical concert movie. As Demme notes “in Fellow Travelers,” one of six illuminating mini-documentaries on the special features disc, he wanted “to capture a dream,” not just Young’s fulfillment of his lifelong dream to perform at the Ryman, but a dream state of creativity.
Toward this end, the film doesn’t show the audience at the concert, for, according to Demme, “That gets in the way of the dream.” Instead, DP Ellen Kuras has eight cameras (plus one Steadicam on stage) focus alternately on band members and Young. Long shots take in clusters of musicians or the entire ensemble, holding on them to reveal the musical interplay. At times the close-ups on the 59-year-old Young are so intense that you can almost see his pores. Wearing a riverboat gambler’s hat and looking like the most prosperous rancher in Northern California, Young is supported by a huge aggregation: the main band has 16 players and singers, including Neil’s wife Pegi and Emmylou Harris; band members like pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith, who go back as far as 35 years with Young; and Wayne Jackson, the trumpet player and arranger best known for his work with the Memphis Horns. Add the 10 or so members of Nashville’s Fisk University Jubilee Singers gospel group, and the dozen members of the Nashville String Machine armed with violins, violas and cellos, and you’ve got a large crowd.
But it never seems that way. The composition leaves an airy sense of space between musicians, but they’re closely listening to each other as they play. “These are people who live in the moment,” Young says in “Rehearsal Diaries.” “They’re not reproducers.” Obviously well prepared, they also reflect Young’s description, that they are incapable of playing the same song the same way twice. Call it rehearsed spontaneity, or excellent musicians responding to one another “in the moment.”
Either way, Young’s songs have rarely been so beautifully framed. Heart of Gold tells a story about the comforts of home and family, confronting mortality, and the appreciation of traditional values. Some of its melancholy beauty comes from the recognition that these songs mark the passing of an era. In the opening song, “The Painter,” Young sings, “It’s a long road behind me / It’s a long road ahead… If you follow every dream, you might get lost.” But that’s okay. It’s clear from the way his cadence changes when he repeats the phrase (“You might… get… lost”), that getting lost is part of the thrill of life’s journey.
Filming a concert at the Ryman has special resonance for Young, a Canadian who has lived in the U.S. since the 1960s. His work has often included direct or oblique touches of American roots music, the antithesis of the slick, made-for-radio country music most people associate with Nashville. Among the revelations in this package is Blast from the Past: The 1971 Johnny Cash Show Performance, which has Young looking every bit the sullen hippie, alone on a circular stage, playing and singing “The Needle and the Damage Done,” about the heroin overdose death of his former bandmate, Danny Whitten. “Every junkie’s like the setting sun,” he sings, and you can see that Nashville TV studio audience squirm. They apparently had little sense of the then solidly “establishment” Cash’s stealth sympathies for rebels like Young and Bob Dylan.
Young, Dylan, and Cash have since become a kind of iconic troika at the top of the loosely defined notion of the singer-songwriter subgenre. But no matter how “country” any of them might have sounded during the last three decades, the institution of country radio had no use for any of them. Still, Young revels in his imagining of Nashville’s past, comparing the Ryman, which used to be the home of the Grand Ole Opry, to a church. While the Opry now exists in a suburban theme park/hotel complex known as Opryland, the Ryman, in downtown Nashville, represents a tradition Young means to preserve. During the interview with Demme, he notes the piles of concrete and construction cranes in the near distance. Another ugly skyscraper will be going up next door, blocking the light from coming through the Ryman’s stained glass windows. He wonders whether anyone will remember what it used to be.
Of the old Nashville, the Nashville of his dream, Young observes, “It’s got the soul here.” He lets us into the dream during the new but reassuringly familiar song “This Old Guitar.” Young points out its significance to his guests, the cream of Nashville musical society: it’s a 1941 Martin D28 Herringbone, the very instrument played by Hank Williams on the same Ryman stage circa 1951. But when Young asks, jovially, “Any guitar pickers in the house?”, you expect abut three-fourths of the audience would let out with a “Whoo!” The response, however, is muffled, a sign that the era that means so much to Young has faded away: he identifies more deeply with Williams and the ghosts of the Ryman than his audience does.
Like the artists he admires, Young breaks hearts the old-fashioned way, with music that cuts deep. Listen to him sing “Old Man” now: “Old man, look at my life, I’m a lot like you.” Setting up the song in the concert, Young recalls that he wrote it when he was 24. He had just become a “rich hippie” and bought the enormous Northern California ranch that is still his home. The elderly caretaker who lived on the property was driving him around this spread, and up near the lake that provides water for all the pastures, the old man asked, “How does a young man like you afford a place like this?”
Any number of “rich hippies” of Young’s age and stature might have said, “What? Don’t you know who I am? I’m a freakin’ rock star!” What Young said at the time was, “Just lucky I guess. Just lucky.” Of course he’s lucky. He’s survived to pursue his dream for five decades now. While a lot has changed, there has been one constant: he is forever Young.
Neil Young: Heart of Gold – Theatrical Trailer