Long May He Run, by David Bax
I’m a big fan of Neil Young. I’m not just saying that in the way that people say they’re “big fans” of anything they don’t outwardly despise. I mean that I buy all of his albums and listen to them a lot and would probably place him in my all-time top five musical artists. Still, going into a screening of Jonathan Demme’s Neil Young Journeys, I felt a sense of trepidation. This is the third Young documentary/concert film Demme has made since 2006. What could he possibly have to say? Are Demme and Young just looking for excuses to hang out and then show us their home videos?
Unfortunately, that’s mostly the case. The shape of this film is defined by performances punctuated generously with footage of Young driving around his old home town, pointing to places and describing what used to be there and reminiscing with his brother about things with which we are wholly unfamiliar. It raises not only the question of why one would be watching it but also why it even exists. The only people who would conceivably be interested in the non-performance sections were present when they were filmed.
As far as the performances go, they are mostly worthwhile and occasionally quite moving. However, about half of the songs are from the last few years and, while Young has remained a far more interesting musician than most who have been at it for half a century, it’s hard not to notice the chasm between then and now when a song from 2010 is played next to “After the Gold Rush” or “Down by the River.”
Still, that’s not the movie’s real problem. There’s a frustrating lack of focus. When Young plays “Ohio,” Demme mixes in footage of the day four students were shot and killed by the National Guard at Kent State, along with still photographs of the deceased. On its own, it would be a powerful and fitting tribute but coming as it does in the midst of things like Young rambling about how his brother’s a good driver, it just feels odd and cheap.
Further cause for exasperation can be found in the film’s look. Demme, especially in his work with cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (The Silence of the Lambs, Beloved), has given us breathtaking imagery in the past. The very talented Declan Quinn (Rachel Getting Married, Monsoon Wedding) shot this one but the handheld sections of Young driving or walking around are ugly to behold. Even in the much more controlled and professional concert footage, there are problems, though I’ll blame Demme and not Quinn for those. The worst offender is a camera attached to the microphone stand that allows us an extreme close-up of the bottom half of Young’s face while he sings. Essentially, this leads to long takes of a 65-year-old man spitting directly at us. At one point, a glob of saliva actually lands on the screen and Demme continues the shot. This is probably the movie’s low point and perhaps one of the lowest points I’ll witness in cinema this year.
Perhaps this is just the fan in me speaking but the problems with this movie are with the filmmaking, not with Neil Young. He’s still a talented songwriter and an even more compelling performer. He uses an economy of instrumentation to produce a very loud and overwhelming sound. Even with only his guitar, he creates sonic waves that he rides both gracefully and determinedly. If I took anything from Neil Young Journeys, it was a desire to go see him perform so that I could enjoy it without all this other crap messing it up.