Years ago Mick Jagger asked what could satisfy a fan’s insatiable need to know everything about the rock god up there on stage. “If I could stick my pen in my heart and spill it all over the stage, would it satisfy ya . . . ” he wondered in song.
Fellow veteran rocker Neil Young is too polite to go to such extremes — he’s Canadian, after all — but he and ardent fan, film director Jonathan Demme ( Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia), seem on a mission to expose every other facet of the singer-songwriter.
For Neil Young Journeys, the pair’s third concert/documentary film together in six years, Young doesn’t quite stick writing utensils into his heart. But thanks to a remote camera the size of a Chiclets chewing gum box affixed to the microphone, Young’s grizzled chin juts right off the screen on Down by the River and Hitchhiker, jabbing at the frame until a great gob of spit splashes onto and obscures the lens and bathes viewers for a good portion of the two songs.
Journeys finds the 66-year-old rock icon cruising around the back roads of his hometown Omemee, Ontario, in a 1956 Crown Victoria enroute to his solo concert at Toronto’s famed Massey Hall, home to Young concerts since the late 1960s. Young casually points out favorite spots like the school named for his Canadian journalist father Scott Young, the woods by his old house, the street where he ate tar on the dare of some neighborhood kid. These fleeting glimpses of the rock star acting as a tour guide are the most endearing and revealing aspects of the film. We learn that Young, like his music, is straight to the point and unsentimental. “That’s why you don’t have to worry when you lose friends; they are still in your head and in your heart,” he says matter-of-factly.
We also learn he prefers listening to music in his car, no matter the size of the speaker, so long as the music was recorded properly. A stickler for fidelity, Young insisted that Journeys be filmed in 96kHz resolution, twice the industry audio standard.
That crystal sound is another plus as Young performs on a simple, darkened stage adorned with backdrops that look like stained glass and include a wooden Indian propped near an organ. The set list focuses primarily on material from his 2010 album, Le Noise, and a handful of staples like Ohio, in which the names and photos of the four Kent State victims flash on screen, and a slashing Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).
This is where Journeys will lose casual fans, though concert documentaries are aimed primarily at the converted. Stylistically, Demme opts for a similar approach that he used for his acclaimed Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense, by revealing the audience only at the end so that the focus remains on the star. But Young’s working alone here, and the feeling becomes claustrophobic when you’ve got only his solitary figure to stare at. His voice is fine and clear, and his electric guitar can unleash a still thrilling Spectorian Wall of Sound, but there are a few too many sound-alike, long songs here. The Le Noise selections tend to drag and can’t compare to the old favorites.
While Young remains a relevant and creative rock artist — his new Crazy Horse reunion album of Americana standards is a surprising artistic success — when an After the Gold Rush or Down by the River arrives on screen, our attention is reborn. But if your passion for Young runs so high that even his Greendale album sounds like a masterwork, then head to the theater pronto for this stark, literally in-your-face performance film.
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