Neil Young Journeys: Old Man, Take a Look at His Life

Jonathan Demme’s concert film/documentary on the Canadian rock icon tries some weird cinematic tricks, making it fundamentally a film for hardcore Young fans.

Photo by Declan Quinn, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Jonathan Demme’s documentary Neil Young Journeys is really a concert film, with a rather flimsy framing device of Young driving from his childhood home of Omemee, Ontario to Toronto’s Massey Hall, where he performs a solo show. The set list is divided between songs from Young’s 2010 album Le Noise, a couple of unreleased songs and his greatest hits, leaning heavily on 1970’s After the Gold Rush.

There’s something about Young’s style that fundamentally shouldn’t work, but does. After all, the sound of a guy with a whiny, frequently cracking and off-key voice singing lyrics like “flying Mother Nature’s silver seed” should be terrible, but instead somehow it’s awesome. And even if you’re not a fan, you have to give Young credit for consistently trying new things and throwing caution to the wind.

Demme seems to take inspiration from this approach in the doc’s cinematic style, with a lot of off-the-cuff experimentation and seemingly random moments. At one point he cuts to an extreme close-up of Young on a camera attached to the singer’s microphone, and stays on the awkward, unflattering angle for a good minute or so. Later he cuts back to this camera, whose lens has been partially obscured by a bead of spit or sweat. It doesn’t look good — actually, it looks terrible — but it’s certainly, as my mother-in-law might say, different.

The Ontario scenes are meandering and only mildly interesting. A tribute to the slain Kent State students during “Ohio” is well-intentioned, but clunky and chintzy. And there are occasional flashes of footage from Young’s personal life, but presented without any context. All these moments feel like something out of a first-year student film, not the work of a director with decades of experience. But as Young himself has shown, experimenting a lot means sometimes falling on your face.

Still, the concert footage has a lot of great moments. Early on, Demme identifies the live sound mixers with an onscreen credit, a generous gesture that also draws attention to the amazing sonority of Young’s voice and guitar in the venerable concert hall. If you’re a hardcore fan, the film is an obvious must-see. If, like me, you’re more of a casual fan, it’s a hit-and-miss experience with equal amounts of brilliance, muddling about and artistic overreach — kind of like Neil Young’s career. ■


Neil Young Journeys opens Aug. 31

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