You don't get to be a massively influential figure in the cutthroat music industry without being a pretty good live performer.
In "Neil Young Journeys," director Jonathan Demme's third documentary with the legendary folk rocker, Young makes that point vividly clear. He puts on a great show for the Toronto crowd, and as one who's never really sought out his music in the past, it sounds fantastic.
Unfortunately, this is a concert film, and while the concert part is enjoyable enough, the actual film aspect is severely lacking.
Most of the film showcases Young's intimate two-night stint at Massey Hall in Toronto, close to his hometown of Omemee. He performs many of his hits, as well as several new songs from his latest album, 2010's "Le Noise." Interspersed between some of the songs are brief handheld clips from the rocker's road trip through his hometown and province, giving him time to reflect on growing up and growing old.
Demme, who won Best Director in 1992 for his terrific "Silence of the Lambs," clearly has a passion for Young's music and mystique. Since their first collaboration in 2006's "Neil Young: Heart of Gold," Demme has mainly focused his big-screen work on the legendary performer. His only Young-free projects in that time have been "Rachel Getting Married" and a documentary on Jimmy Carter.
It's easy to see why the director would become so intrigued with the aged rocker. The man has almost a mythical sense to him, made only more apparent in his music. Though he's just one man on stage, Young's guitars roar with the power of an entire band. Demme puts up the names of the concert's sound and audio mixers on screen, and considering how great the show sounds, the recognition is deserved.
The best aspect of the audio mix is the crystal clear vocals. Young's lyrics and songwriting skills are often times mesmerizing. Sometimes they're searingly honest ("Ohio," "Love and War"); sometimes they're playful ("Leia"). The one constant is that Young sells each word and lyric on stage with real heart and deep emotion. It's as though he's not just singing but telling a story with each number.
It's a tragic shame that Demme's direction doesn't let the music shine the way it deserves. His overall shot selection for the concert is effective, if uninventive. It's a lot of static shots of Young on stage, which works decently for the low-key performance. One number is shot almost entirely from underneath a piano's open top.
In comparison to the recent (and superior) LCD Soundsystem big-screen rock doc, "Shut Up and Play the Hits," which gracefully swooped into and above the crowd, it's hard to not wish "Journeys" featured just a little bit of the same visual creativity.
Demme's few attempts at ingenuity during the concert fall horrifically flat. The most ill-conceived idea is a camera placed right below Young's microphone, which gives viewers an uncomfortably close view of Young's stubbly chin and throat. During one song, a wad of spittle lands on the lens, making an already unflattering shot worse. For some reason, even with the spit on the camera, Demme keeps using the footage, distracting the audience from Young's performance.
One of Young's most memorable performances in the film, the Kent State tribute "Ohio," also gets bogged down with unneeded distractions. Midway through, Demme loads the number with the names and photos of the four victims. He repeats the visual tribute a couple of times before the end of the song. It's a kind and earnest gesture, but the song's lyrics speak for themselves without Demme's help.
It's taken me awhile to get around to discussing the road trip footage, and frankly, that's because there's just not much to say about it. Young follows his brother driving through Ontario, making a few hometown stops and spouting a couple of observations, most of which are beyond mundane. There are a few moments of bittersweet nostalgia, but they're mixed in with Young discussing his brother's adequate driving speed. It won't provide much content of interest save for intensely passionate fans.
So the journeys mentioned in the film's title are a bit of a bust, but at least Young's music sounds great. I'd love to see one of his shows in person, where bad direction wouldn't be able to hinder a good time.
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