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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "Neil Young: Heart of Gold" (2006)

Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense” has always had a special place in my heart and remains one of my favorite films of all time. It not only changed the way I listen to music, but also the way I look at it. At the time of its release, the world of pop music was at its nadir with big hair bands and shallow pop divas (all named Jackson) ruled the charts. At the age of 13-14, I had no one around to point me in the right direction as to where I could hear great music. I basically turned the radio off for a good two years, because I just didn’t get it anymore. I went back to my Beatles records. Now, 20+ years later, Demme brings us his third concert film, “Neil Young: Heart of Gold.” Can the same experience happen to a young teenager today?

One can only hope. If nothing else, this new film feels just as relevant and vital to the current musical climate that continues to celebrate mediocrity while treating songs like fast food burgers on an assembly line. Today, Neil Young can still hold his head high and declare he’s not selling anything but his music. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy for him these days to get his music out there where people will notice it. Not every city has a radio station like WXRT here in Chicago that continue to support new albums by yesterday’s most popular artists. Unlike most of the swill you do hear on 99% of the country’s pop stations, Young’s latest album “Prairie Wind” deserves to be heard.

Luckily, there still exists an audience for concert films and I’ve never heard one as enthusiastic as the one I sat with for this film. “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” transcends whether you are a fan of his or not. I consider myself a casual fan. I don’t own any of his albums, but I certainly respect his place in rock history and don’t have a bad thing to say about him. I did see Greendale” and found it to be an interesting visual footnote for that album and the sort of movie musical we don’t see that much of anymore (a movie based on an album). I listened to “Prairie Wind” a couple times before I even knew there was a movie. Yet, this concert film made me want to clap after many of the songs. The audience I sat with did not hold back.

So, this is not a bias I have toward or against Neil Young. I honestly don’t think bias matters here. This is a beautiful film about a man who is moving on with his life after being treated for a brain aneurysm. He has spent the last 40 years making a living recording and performing his music and will continue to do so, sick or not. The concert takes place in Memphis and the film opens with Young and his band (which includes Emmylou Harris) giving their reasons as to why Memphis seems to be the right place for this concert. The interview footage looks old and grainy, not unlike Young’s “Greendale” footage.

Yet once the concert starts, the film changes stock and it looks exquisite. Each song has its own lighting scheme. Sometimes it looks as though Young and his band are draped in a gorgeous sunset; other times, it looks as though he’s singing under the simple light of the full moon. Demme, true to his form, keeps the camera steady and the editing minimal. The backdrops behind the band changed periodically, as they did with “Stop Making Sense” and Young occasionally speaks about his life and music between songs as did Robyn Hitchcock in Demme’s wonderful, little-seen concert film “Storefront Hitchcock.”

The concert itself is one of the most moving I’ve ever seen, either live or on film. This is not the angry “Rockin’ in the Free World” Neil Young, nor is it an account of a has-been who is approaching the twilight of his career. Young still has a lot to say and his songs have the benefit of experience laced within them. Young sings about his children, his past loves, 9/11 and growing older, but not in a way that would signify a sanctimonious farewell to his audience. It’s an account of a man who has lived a rich life, but is still not ready to pack it in anytime soon. He still sings his songs like he means every word of it and these are some powerful words.

The problem concert films always face is that they’re usually doomed to be seen only by fans and dismissed by everyone else. You certainly never get used to the idea of going to the movies and just watching a concert, but Demme makes the experience as complete as any movie. “Stop Making Sense” still has more originality and energy today than most Hollywood films. “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” is a movie that I believe can reach people, whether or not they have an opinion of Young’s music. Demme’s concert films keep you watching and rarely checking your watch. He doesn’t just film concerts because he’s a fan. He films then because they’re inherently cinematic. He films them because to make them into movies makes clear, perfect sense.

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