August 17th, 2006
I first heard about the Jonathan Demme concert film Neil Young: Heart of Gold from a great interview Terry Gross did with both men earlier this year. It's an amazing story: Young learned that he had a brain aneurism, which would require surgery. Before the surgery, he got together in Nashville with some of his favorite musicians, writing a song each night in his hotel room and then recording it with them the next day. Those songs became last year's lovely, wistful Prairie Wind album. Following Young's successful surgery, Demme persuaded Young to perform the songs from that record -- plus a selection of earlier tunes from his "Harvest" trilogy -- with those same musicians at Nashville's storied Ryman Auditorium. The resulting movie -- which I ended up renting for months, as I traveled the country with it -- provided a rich and loving emotional backdrop for my entire summer. It's beautifully shot and carefully mixed -- you really feel the vibe of the space, the electricity between audience and performers, and especially among the performers themselves -- and somehow manages to make experiences like aging and loss seem to add up to something hopeful.
If you've seen any of Demme's previous concert films -- and I own all of them -- you know about his uncanny knack for bringing all the movie's elements (sets, lighting, editing) into deep affinity with each performer's aesthetic. Stop Making Sense (1984) echoed the art-school, punk and funk impulses at play in a legendary tour that brought the Talking Heads together with some Funkadelic virtuosos. Swimming to Cambodia (1987) captured the genius of the late monologuist Spalding Gray at the height of his idiosyncratic powers. And the (as far as I can glean) underappreciated Storefront Hitchock (1998) offered a spare presentation of a concert by the great singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock (in what was literally a storefront) that was almost Luddite in its simplicity -- and perfectly attuned to the artist's quirky sensibilities. (By the way, I consider the Hitchcock tune "Let's Go Thundering" from that movie -- also available on the accompanying soundtrack album -- to be an exhilarating affirmation of the joys of middle-aged relationships. Though, given that I tend to float in and out of the lyrics of almost every song I listen to, conceivably it's actually about the weather. ... And while I'm being parenthetical, I also want to mention that Hitchcock's long spoken ramble -- there are many in the film -- about religion vs. spirituality has had a major impact on my thinking.) One thing that amazes me about all these movies is how the film techniques on display in each one (and there's a lot of exquisite filmmaking going on) almost never call attention to themselves: rather, they're about unifying all the elements into an experience that brings you deep inside each artist's sensibilities. (The same, by the way, is also true of the beautiful Louis Malle semi-concert film Vanya on 42nd Street, which I watch whenever I want to be elated by the possibilities of theater and movies at the same tame.)
Maybe there should be a category for filmmakers (Demme, Sayles, Mamet) who live double lives -- "commercial" and non-. My sense of Demme's big-budget films, ever since the enormous success of 1991's The Silence of the Lambs, is that he's continuing to pour out his soul in "small" projects like these concert films -- along with other docs like 1992's Cousin Bobby (about Demme's radical-minister relative) -- in ways that the business and mechanics of major-studio filmmaking may impede. I still remember being blown away, years back, watching a blurry print of Demme's Handle with Care (1977) -- can still feel the delicious shock of discovering a new voice, a new way of telling movie stories. That's the Demme I feel behind Neil Young: Heart of Gold -- call him "Cousin Demme" -- and I look forward to his next low-budget, lovingly put-together celebration of the performing arts' ephemeral beauty.
Entry Filed under: let's digress