By Blaine Schultz   Published Mar 23, 2006 at 5:21 AM

With "Stop Making Sense," the Talking Heads concert film, Jonathan Demme set a new standard for merging film and music. Likewise, when Neil Young made "Rust Never Sleeps" he showed just how powerfully an artist could be captured in concert for viewing in a movie theater. Last summer Demme filmed Young's performances over two nights at the famed Ryman Auditorium in Nashville for "Neil Young Heart of Gold."

Young's latest album "Prairie Wind" is essentially a meditation on mortality. Young's father recently passed after struggling with Alzheimer's Disease, Young himself suffered an aneurysm during the recording of the album and the events of 9/11 still weigh on the singer's mind. The film opens with a view of the Nashville skyline as Young and various musicians offer glimpses of Nashville's transformation; metaphors for the passing of time and the stuff of life.

Taking the stage with backdrops and western costumes direct from central casting of "Annie Get Your Gun," Young pulls out all the stops in recreating nearly the entire "Prairie Wind" album onstage. The core band is built around dobro/steel guitarist Ben Keith, drummer Karl Himmel and Grant Boatwright who joined Young on his earliest forays to Nashville. Others returning to the fold include Emmylou Harris, Spooner Oldham, Rick Rosas, Anthony Crawford and Pegi Young.

Also augmenting the band are the Memphis Horns, the Nashville String Machine string section, the Fisk University Jubilee Singers gospel choir and a pair of background vocalists. When Young gets an idea, he swings for the fence.

In the film's opening scenes one thing becomes evident, Neil Young is getting old. Certainly he was always an old soul -- the sagacious odd man out as the buckskinned Canadian kid in Buffalo Springfield, the edgy wildcard in CSNY's harmony, and his collaboration with Devo when all his hippie brethren dismissed punk/new wave as noise.

But on film and larger than life, Young looks like an old guy who also is on his way to coming to terms with his own long and winding road. While he's liable to plug in his Les Paul next week, his craggy face and burnished songs tell stories that seem more about dealing with situations than looking for answers.

But Young never plugs in here. While Keith plays a few electric solos on lap steel, it is Young's craggy and kinetic acoustic guitar that underpins and drives the "Prairie Wind" tunes. Throughout the program Young is a generous host and Demme capture's the guests' strengths.

In particular, on the songs "No Wonder" and "Prairie Wind," the power of the vocalists answering Young is electrifying. Oldham's Hammond organ and the horn parts punch through like vintage Stax soul, adding an R&B element to the church-like presence of the Ryman, which had been home to the "Grande Ole Opry" for decades.

It is also appropriate that Young is playing the Martin D28 guitar once owned by Hank Williams. In the 1970s Boatwright helped put the guitar in Young's hands and in its honor he wrote "This Old Guitar":

"When I get drunk and am seeing double, it gets behind the wheel and steers."

Emmylou Harris' presence alongside Young adds an apparitional grace.

Young then follows with 10 songs that concentrate on the albums he has recorded in Nashville over the years. With its signature opening riff "Heart of Gold" remains Young's most recognizable song and in this setting proves it has aged perfectly. "Is there a guitar player in the house?," he asks as seven musicians strum acoustics on "Comes A Time," dedicated to the late Nicolette Larson who sang on Young's albums and covered his tunes.

The assembled string army remains for a tune Young first heard on a jukebox as a kid in Canada, Ian Tyson's "Four Strong Winds." The films ends with a seated Young performing alone onstage in the empty Ryman. At the conclusion of "The Old Laughing Lady" -- one of his early songs dealing with mortality -- Young packs up his guitar as if to say there is still another gig to play.

"Neil Young Heart of Gold" opens Friday, March 31 at Landmark's Downer Theatre.