Neil Young’s lyrics generally don’t need any help in getting their point across.
Down by the river/I shot my baby down is about as straightforward a confessional as rock music allows. But thanks to a loose screw, Young’s Down by the River, his classic from 1969, is more fearsome and commanding than ever.
As seen in the new concert film/documentary Neil Young Journeys, his third collaboration with director Jonathan Demme, Down by the River finds a solo Young singing in a voice still high and clear despite decades of wear on the road and accompanied only by his electric guitar.
But then a funny thing happens. The camera, already too close for comfort, slips downward so that the entire screen displays Young’s grizzled chin. Young, 66, punctuates his singing by jutting his chin forward, almost assaulting the lens. The same thing happens during the equally raucous Hitchhiker, and the extreme close-up becomes obscured by a great gob of Young’s spit.
Demme, 68, an Oscar winner for his direction of The Silence of the Lambs in 1991, leaves the camera alone and lets the scenes play in full on what some have dubbed “Grizzle Cam.”
The effect is startling, discomforting and yet draws you into the music in a way most rock docs don’t. You are one with Young.
Don’t mess with a happy accident.
“ D own by the River is the luckiest blessing the cinema gods ever bestowed,” says Demme, thrilled to find out the scene, with its bodily fluids and rough facial scrub, had the desired effect on the viewer. The moment happened as a result of an accident because traditional camera work would not have captured these intimate shots. “I wanted to get a close-up of Neil in this show that doesn’t have a mic in the foreground, but there was no such thing because Neil was singing so close to the mic.”
Director of photography Declan Quinn suggested the use of a remote Icon camera, small as a box of Chiclets, and placed it just under Young’s mic.
“The set-up shot was supposed to be full face, but as the concert went on, the bolt that fastened it drifted down and it became a shot of Neil’s voice source, where the story comes out,” Demme says. “... It’s got everything that makes us love film noir. We sit there for 90 minutes and what we get out of three minutes in Down by the River is so cinematic, it’s not just about the music.”
After three films together — Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006) and Trunk Show (2009) — the two have developed a symbiotic relationship built on friendship and mutual respect. The chemistry has helped them not only advance the form of rock docs but allows the featured artist the freedom to just be on stage without worrying about taking direction or fretting about camera angles while delivering often deeply personal music. Demme and Young also give interviews together to discuss their projects.
“I really don’t think about the camera,” Young says. “I try to sing the song and that’s my job, to try to marry the moment with the song and what the souls in the song are about. If I do my job right and I don’t try to do it too many times, and I don’t OD by doing the same song too many times, the song still lives and is fresh, even though it’s an old song if I haven’t abused it. Whatever happens then, it’s up to the moment. If we got the right moment and the right song we get a performance that’s memorable.”