|Neil Young in Neil Young Journeys.|
By Ed Rampell
Jonathan Demme is one of those rare directors who seems to effortlessly foray from major Hollywood productions -- including the 1990s features, The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia -- to documentaries, such as 2003’s Haiti-shot, The Agronomist. Neil Young Journeys is Demme’s third nonfiction collaboration with the prolific performer and composer who has been one quarter of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, as well as a mover, shaker and rocker with Buffalo Springfield and Crazy Horse.
The documentary opens with Young driving around his old stomping grounds in Omenee, the town in North Ontario he plaintively sang about in CSNY’s "Helpless" on their landmark Déjà Vu album. Neil Young Journeys alternates between Young’s peregrinations around his beloved hometown and a one man show at Toronto’s Massey Hall where he performs new and classic songs from his considerable repertoire.
Some of those vintage numbers include "Down By the River" and "After the Gold Rush," wherein the socially conscious Young updated the lyrics, singing, 'Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 21st century.' A rousing rendition of "Ohio" includes four names projected on the screen, who turn out to be the 'four dead in Ohio,' CSNY lyrically lamented after National Guardsmen killed a quartet of college students protesting the Indochina War at Kent State on May 4, 1970. The sequence is intercut with archival footage of the unarmed Kent demonstrators and the National Guard assassins. It’s hard to believe that each of the slain students was only around 20, youths robbed of their lives by Nixon’s henchmen. Thank you very much, Mssrs. Young and Demme, for remembering them, and for doing so in such a stirring, touching manner.
When I think of Young I remember a high pitched voice and acoustic guitar. Perhaps my memory is faulty? In any case, in Neil Young Journeys Young strums a variety of electric guitars, belting out amped up licks with lots of heavy reverb. He can still hit the high notes, but his voice is more gravelly and raspy here. It seems to be the opposite of the, say, Eric Clapton trend of taking and taming classic rock hits, such as Derek and the Dominos’ immortal "Layla," and updating them with more mature, tranquil acoustic, “unplugged” versions. In Neil Young Journeys Young is very much “plugged”; at the end of his set Young “plays” the speakers, inducing mindbending feedback worthy of Jimi Hendrix. (BTW, the only good thing about Hendrix’s untimely death is that we didn’t have to hear him play unplugged versions of Purple Haze and Foxy Lady on acoustic guitars when we grew up.)
The glammed down rocker also tickles the ivories of a number of keyboards during his solo performance, which features many searing extreme close-ups of Young, who is extremely emotive and soulful as he sings and plays. The film has a cinema verite, “you are there” flavor. At least one camera is, literally, in spitting range and some may have problems with Declan Quinn’s cinematography: Call it “Spittle-vision.” The audience is also rarely seen in this concert film, wherein the Canadian also croons newer tunes, such as 2010’s "Love and War."
At 66 years old, he remains forever Young.