You get a lot of face time with Neil Young in Neil Young Journeys, the third concert film/documentary on the veteran singer-songwriter in six years from Jonathan Demme.
Shooting a couple of rapturously received gigs performed by a band-less Young at Toronto’s historic Massey Hall in May, 2011, Demme not only had his camera crew get up the singer’s nose (literally), he affixed small stationary cameras inside a piano, on the microphone stand and elsewhere to capture his subject’s every grimace, gliss of sweat and fleck of spittle. Multimillionaire though he may be, Young never has been one to stand on personal grooming so the face here is lined, unshaven, squinty-eyed and stuffed under a Dollarama straw fedora. It is, in other words, the wartsy antipode of Katy Perry: Part of Me, with an intimacy and intensity bordering on the overwhelming.
As you might gather from the title, the film is a musical trek through Young’s vast, decades-spanning repertoire, albeit one drawing heavily on material from the Le Noise sessions he had completed a year earlier with producer and fellow Canadian Daniel Lanois. The other conceit for the title comes from footage Demme intersperses throughout the concert stuff – newsreels from the May, 1970, Kent State massacre to complement Young’s powerful performance of that most bitter and bewildered of anthems, Ohio; home movies; Young wheeling a 1956 Ford Crown Victoria through the haunted streets and environs of Omemee (the “town in north Ontario” that birthed Helpless), serving up vivid, often funny memories before heading to the frenzy of the 401, down the Don Valley Parkway and into Massey Hall.
Over all, Neil Young Journeys is a pretty solemn affair, kinda like the man himself. Alternating among a potpourri of acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards and harmonica – the only prop onstage appears to be a large, crudely carved wooden Indian – Young mixes great gusts of viscous sound, often drenched in feedback, with lighter sonorities. The lilting Leia, for instance, about a friend’s young daughter, is a one-chord charmer tinkled on the piano.
At film’s end, one is left in awe at the richness of Young’s oeuvre (which admittedly sometimes makes Bob Dylan’s seem like tidings of great joy), his stamina and his questing spirit. Sixty-six now (65 when Journeys was made), he is that rare rock ’n’ roll senior who, without disavowing the glories of his past, has never let them become comfortable nostalgia blanket or straitjacket.
“Walk on, talk on” . . . Neil Percival Young still seems to have lots of gas.