Neil Young Journeys
“Neil Young Journeys” is as elegantly simple as its title suggests. Director Jonathan Demme recorded two days of Young’s performance at Massey Hall in Toronto during a 2011 solo tour. Before that, the camera crew followed the iconic singer/songwriter on a drive from his hometown of Omemee, Ontario, on his way to play at the concert.
The film intercuts footage from his performance with reminisces about growing up in 1950s small-town Canada. Young, driving a 1956 Ford Fairlane, talks about where he started as a boy while his music relates the tale of his journey as an artist.
For hardcore Neil Young fans, it’s a mesmerizing and intimate visit with a performer who is identified most closely with rock ‘n’ roll but whose artistic curiosity has taken him in myriad musical directions throughout his 40-plus-year career. To those like myself whose appreciation is more casual, it’s an opportunity to encounter some of his lesser-known recent hits as well as classics like “Ohio” and “Hey Hey, My My.”
In his mid-60s, Young’s high tenor voice is eerily unchanged from his youth. It’s a great instrument that he’s made full use of throughout his long time on the stage. He can bend it smooth like soft butter or sharpen it into an angry knife.
Young, dressed in a loose-fitting white suit and matching fedora, stands alone on a multi-tiered stage full of instruments, which he putters around between for various sets. In one of the most engaging bits, he dangles his electric guitar by the neck in front of a series of amplifiers, moving it around back and forth to take the keening yawl of distortion and turn it into an ethereally beautiful series of chords.
Demme makes some daring stylistic choices with his camera, most, but not all, of which pay off. For a couple of songs, he ties a small camera to Young’s microphone for an ultra close-up; for long stretches, we only see him from nostrils to jowls. It’s meant to be a distracting, offbeat angle, but it’s held for too long and becomes unnerving.
The mix is about 80 percent singing and 20 percent traveling, and I wish it had been more like 60/40 in the other direction — not because the performance isn’t entertaining but because the private moments are so much more so.
Young looks at how much his small town has changed as bulldozers turn over the earth and reshape the landmarks he once knew. “It’s all gone. But it’s in my head. That’s why you don’t have to worry when you lose friends,” he muses.
He also talks about his love of the road and old cars and how they combine with his own appetites as a consumer of music. “When I do my listening, I do it in cars. I don’t give a shit if I’m doing it on a speaker this big,” he says, holding his fingers slightly apart.
“I can tell if I like the music by listening to it in a car.”
We also get a glimpse at his backstage ritual before heading out before the crowd. In a darkened corner, a few candles cast a dim glow over a small table set up like a shrine. He drinks some tea for his throat, takes a few swigs of a domestic beer and sucks on a lemon wedge, savoring each
Soothing and sharp, comforting and off-putting — that combination of flavors could also describe the musical progress of an artist who has always seemed to appreciate the voyage more than the destination.