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.”
Trail of memories
Journeys, which opens Friday in Miami Beach and Boca Raton, finds Young trading on those memories, and it’s the nonperformance scenes that help move the film beyond the standard pop star vanity project. The concert performances, shot in 96kHz — twice the industry standard for audio — are drawn largely from his 2010 Daniel Lanois-produced Le Noise album, along with several older favorites. One is the still-jarring 1970 Kent State protest tune, Ohio, originally recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young after four students protesting the Vietnam War were killed. The tender After the Gold Rush and slashing Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black) also figure.
These performances are intercut with scenes of the singer-songwriter cruising around the back roads and streets of his hometown of Omemee, Ontario, in a 1956 Crown Victoria.
As he drives, Young puts viewers in the passenger seat, casually pointing out favorite spots. Older brother Ben Young is in the car ahead and functions as a tour guide, never once going above the speed limit.
“My brother’s driving at the perfect pace — not too slow, not too fast,” Young teases during the film.
He has a place to be — Massey Hall, where the concert performances take place — but the venue will be there when he arrives. Massey Hall is a landmark, built in 1893 and the site of concerts by everyone from tenor Enrico Caruso, who in 1920 packed the house so full he ventured onto the fire escape to sing an aria to a crowd that couldn’t get in, to Rhapsody in Blue composer George Gershwin. Pop and rock icons like Canada favorite son Gordon Lightfoot, Bob Dylan, rock trio Rush and Rolling Stone Keith Richards have all played its stage.
But Young, with Demme’s unobtrusive cameras in tow, also wants to take us for a ride.
Young calls attention to the school named for his Canadian journalist father Scott Young, strolls through the woods by his childhood home with his brother, and takes us down the street where he once ate tar because some neighborhood kid dared him to take a bite.
The experience of capturing this journey on film proves appealing and, ultimately, enlightening.
“I was having a great time,” Young recalls. “My brother was the tour guide in front of us and he knew where to go, what would stimulate the most memories and conversations, and took us on a nice cruise.
“What struck me, watching the old car as it went farther and farther down the road to its destination, the car was not changing and everything else was changing,” Young continues, noting how different his town looks through the eyes of a senior. “Very little of the car’s original environment was left. In that respect, the car was me. It was a great metaphor for the time standing still and time moving forward at the same time.”
Demme, credited with filming one of the most acclaimed concert films, the Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense, in 1984, isn’t worried that fans will feel a sense of burnout given that this is the pair’s third collaboration in a relatively short time. Each film has a different tone. Besides, he never loses his fascination with his pal’s command of a stage and screen.
“He’s a great storyteller,” Demme says. “He’s extraordinarily expressive the way he tells his musical stories. His body language and facial expressions are always riveting, and Neil has a cinematic aura. The camera adores him, and he doesn’t waste any time thinking about the camera but he understands it. He’s just endlessly filmable.”
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