February 15-21, 2006

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Heart of Gold

Photograph by Ken Regan
All Neil: Jonathan Demme mines the music of Neil Young in 'Heart of Gold.'

Again Young

Jonathan Demme films Neil Young in 'Heart of Gold,' with a mix of schmaltz and genuine magic

By Richard von Busack

A SENSE of mortality hovers over Jonathan Demme's new concert movie, Neil Young: Heart of Gold. The film is full of occasional but profound beauty, though it is neither as magnificent as Demme's Stop Making Sense nor as infused with the lively street-singer lunacy of Demme's neglected 1996 Storefront Hitchcock.

From the latter, consider Robyn Hitchcock's ode to his dead father "The Yip Song!" with its collage of phantasmagorical imagery, including '40s crooner Vera Lynn exploring the delirium of an aged cancer patient etherized on the operating table. In Heart of Gold, Young's tribute to his late father is more an incident of golden hindsight: "I'm trying to remember what my daddy said."

If, in Demme's view, Robyn Hitchcock was something like Dali and the Taking Heads were something like the late video artist Nam June Paik, Young is Norman Rockwell. The new songs here speak about fields of wheat, little boys fishing, trains taking passengers across the prairie and the wind bearing it all away.

Demme filmed the preview of Young's latest album, Prairie Wind, at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, last Aug. 19. Backed by everyone from his wife, Pegi, to the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, Young performs in front of billboard-size scrims.

One of the backdrops is a flat illustration of what Young is singing about: summer prairies crossed by a long train. This yellowed scrim alternates with the interior of a cabin with a rock fireplace. The charm of the cabin is spoiled, however, because it has a living room big enough to park an 18-wheeler in. Maybe it's coincidence, but the music gets better once these 10-ton mythical scrims are stripped away, revealing the bare walls of the Ryman.

The 60-year-old singer looks like Thomas Mitchell, the character actor who played Scarlett's father in Gone With the Wind. The legs of his trousers are wrinkled, in contrast to a natty embroidered coat by the cowboy courtier Manuel. Young wears a new, flat planter's hat on his head.

Demme, filming with eight still cameras and a steady-cam, closes in on Young's face. If the music is uneven, the camera is always in the right place to observe the contrast of steadiness and fallibility essential to Young's art. The beauty of Young's falsetto is how it crumbles as it reaches to the top.

Last year, Young was diagnosed with a brain aneurism, which was treated surgically. No doubt, the musician took a long look into his open grave before composing the Prairie Wind album. The songs are full of phrases about fleeing time, disintegrating memories, clocks ticking and church bells measuring the hours.

For some of the show, Young plays on Hank Williams' piebald old guitar, the finish worn from years of fingertips. He even reminds us, in song, that someone else will be playing that guitar after he's gone. I realize this, but the talent that came up with the image of "tin soldiers and Nixon coming" only faces the current crop of political scoundrels with weary resignation. Young tries to counter them with "When God Made Me," which he plays on a Steinway. He seeks sweet reasonableness from the religious right, yet under the sweetness is the flavor of ego, of schmaltz.

Demme and Young both realize that this is a film about an elder statesman taking the stage of the Ryman as holy ground. And it is, but that sacred stage also bore the weight of Homer and Jethro. There's little good strong humor in the show's first half.

Neil Young: Heart of Gold doesn't really bliss out until the second half, when Young revisits his song catalog, from "I Am a Child" to "Old Man." (Over the end credits, Young does a bare-stage solo version of "The Old Laughing Lady," from his first solo album in 1969. It's a serious nerve-tingler.)

From his sober gray suit, Young changes into a burgundy-colored cowboy outfit. And the film gains male-female tension when backup vocalist Emmylou Harris moves from backstage to the forefront. She's long and tall and sooty-eyed, in a cornflower-blue dress, and her hair is so silver that it's crystalline. Onstage, Harris is no smiler. But as she plays guitar, she graces Young with a rare flash of her teeth when Young does a hound's howl on the song about his dog King.

"Harvest Moon" is another stunner. Percussionist Larry Cragg creates a soft-shoe shuffle by dragging a broom across a board coated with Zolatone industrial paint. The love-ballad sums up an irresistible image of lazy, beachy L.A. "Harvest Moon" is what the Eagles would have sounded like if they'd had taste.

And Demme's staging of the heroin lament "The Needle and the Damage Done" comes across just as potently. The red eye of an amplifier light glints in the darkness onstage, which in turn is lit by a white haze from the upper righthand corner. (It's like Dr. Lecter's holding cell in Demme's The Silence of the Lambs.)

In the gloom, we can just see a reflection from half-seen microphone stands and drumkits. Solo, Young plays; his hat hides his face, as he watches his fingering on the frets. The camera steals on him slightly, receding a little before the old man lets the notes drop off in the end, unfinished. As Young's lyrics say elsewhere, "You'll know it when you see it, 'cause it sure is a hell of a sight."

Movie Times Neil Young: Heart of Gold (PG; 103 min.), directed by Jonathan Demme, photographed by Ellen Kuras and starring Neil Young, opens Friday valleywide.

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