As the curtains of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn., are drawn to reveal Neil Young and his band, it is clear that everyone there is in the presence of a musical titan.
With a career spanning more than 40 years, he has been a member of bands including Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; has released close to 50 albums; and has had immeasurable influence on many contemporary artists. Neil Young is a rock ‘n’ roll God.
In the two live shows that comprise Jonathan Demme’s new film “Neil Young: Heart of Gold,” Young performs in front of just 3,000 fans and with a band of only a few close friends. Although the movie is pegged as a documentary, it is essentially a straightforward taping of the live concert. For the Neil Young of today, it is all about the music.
During the first half of the performance, Young provides renditions of nine of the 10 tracks from his new folk album Prairie Wind.
The album has been praised as his return to form and his best work since 1992’s classic “Harvest Moon.”
Demme, who previously directed the 1984 documentary “Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense,” provides the first of many tight close-ups on Young’s face, revealing his intense yet restrained passion. The 60-year-old croons, “It’s a long road behind me.” No one is going to deny him that.
The second half of the film trumps the first, as Young begins to dive into his extensive back catalog. Sticking with the country/folk feeling of the show (Young even plays a guitar that once belonged to Hank Williams), he steers clear of rock hits such as 1989’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.”
As the credits roll, we are treated to the highlight of the film. Young, in a taping that obviously took place separately from the rest of the film, sits in the middle of the barren stage, with just his guitar, and gives a heart-breaking performance of “The Old Laughing Lady.” Shot diagonally from behind Young, Demme provides a look at the old vacant theater, as well as Young, who is so immersed with his instrument that you feel he could have done the whole show alone; no audience, no band, just him and his guitar. And it wouldn’t have made a difference to him, because for Neil Young, it is truly all about the music – it is here that he proves you don’t need much more than that.
“Neil Young: Heart of Gold” hits theaters nationwide this Friday.