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Director Jonathan Demme finds an untethered film style that is just right for Neil Young's musical wanderings.

Larry Cragg/Larry Cragg

4 out of 4 stars


Neil Young Trunk Show

  • Directed by Jonathan Demme
  • Starring Neil Young
  • Classification: G

Jonathan Demme's previous concert film with Neil Young, Heart of Gold (2006), documented Young, the courtly country gentleman, all decked out in a silver swallowtail coat. This time out, Demme presents Neil, the Hendrix disciple/axe murderer - shirt untucked, hair wild with untamed thoughts, lurching about the stage with an electric-guitar flamethrower.

Even the acoustic numbers come with a slight fever. Whereas the 1974 version of Ambulance Blues, one of Young's spacey time travelogues, was furtive and off-hand, the film version is passionate and charged with recrimination.

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Demme apparently showed up for two 2007 Young shows in the Philadelphia area without a game plan, so decided to play it as it lays, allowing his subject's mood to dictate his film's purpose and style. A Young fan, he probably wasn't surprised to find his star had grown restless. On the liner notes to Decade, his seventies greatest-hits album, Young wrote of his lone No. 1 single, Heart of Gold, "This [1972]song put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people."

Demme has lots of intriguing characters, not to mention travel knickknacks, to consider in Neil Young Trunk Show. There's a painter touching up stage decor, even as the show unfolds. A puffed-up sultan wanders the stage, staring down the audience. Ralph Molina's (ex of Crazy Horse) drum kit comes festooned with a pirate flag. Ben Keith's pedal steel is hidden by a painted condor.

Still, the most interesting people here are Mr. Multiple Personality, the country-folk-rocker-model-train-enthusiast Neil Young. And much of the travel takes place on Young's electric guitar, which during a splendid, soaring Like a Hurricane, dances on a light from star to star, just as the song's lyrics promise.

Demme finds an untethered film style that is just right for Young's musical wanderings. The director who made the great Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense doesn't attempt a straightforward staging of Young's show. Demme, who mans a camera himself, sometimes drifts off stage during songs. Performances aren't always married to the soundtrack. Cameras pop up unexpectedly - inside the open lid of a piano, behind the band, in the stage wings, inside and to the back of a thrashing mosh pit.

The film's subtitle, "Scenes from a concert," is about right. Neil Young Trunk Show is an impressionistic work that is perfectly in tune with its subject's hallucinatory music.

Like all true filmmakers, Demme also has an eye for telling details. Like how Young, who can never settle on direction or mood, keeps both water and a bottle of beer, along with five different guitars, alongside him while performing the song Harvest.

Speaking of gathering crops, Neil Young Trunk Show offers a judicious sampling of the musician's richest and most reflective period, the seventies, along with several numbers from his 2007 Chrome Dreams II album - material that sounds more vital with Neil plugged into a rapt audience, with his amplifier turned up to 11.

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All of which leaves us wondering: What will Young and Demme do for a second encore? The duo have reportedly agreed on a three-film concert series. Neither of the first two concerts have dealt with Young's most acclaimed seventies work. Wouldn't it be something if Neil brought it all back home, reviving Rust Never Sleeps in Winnipeg, the city where he received his calling? That's certainly how the trilogy is cued up to proceed. Trunk Show's closing song is the chiming instrumental Telstar, a guitar rave up that Young would have first heard as a student at Kelvin High back in 1962.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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