"Neil Young: Heart of Gold" is a concert film and something more. It's the record of a life, a musical and spiritual autobiography, and as directed by Jonathan Demme it taps into the kind of unashamed, unsentimental emotion that's become increasingly rare in films of any kind.
"Heart of Gold's" success comes from the combination of two talents ideally suited to one another: Young, who reaffirms his position as a master singer-songwriter, and Demme, who, as he did with the Talking Heads' very different "Stop Making Sense," shows no one is better at putting music on screen.
Though these two had worked together before, on music videos and an Oscar-nominated song Young wrote for Demme's "Philadelphia," their collaboration here was special.
For one thing, the "Prairie Wind" collection of songs that are the heart of the film came from an unusual circumstance: Young wrote them in the spring of 2005 out of a need to re-examine his life after being diagnosed with a potentially fatal brain aneurysm.
These compositions, suffused with Young's gift for making poetry out of everyday life, touch everything from his wistfulness at being an empty-nest parent ("Here for You") to a wrenching lyric about the recent death of his father: "Trying to remember what my daddy said / Before too much time took away his head."
Making the material that much more emotional was the fact that the filmed concert took place over two nights last August at Nashville's storied Ryman Auditorium, for decades the home of the Grand Ole Opry. "Neil would be singing these songs for the first time ever to an audience that never heard them before," Demme explained at the film's Sundance premiere. "He'd be so communicative under those circumstances."
It isn't just these brand new songs that Young sings to great effect, the emotion of the concert extends to his proven classics as well. "It's a Dream," "I Am a Child," "Harvest Moon" and the title song "Heart of Gold" are played with great warmth and skill by a band that includes pedal steel virtuoso Ben Keith, bass player Rick Rosas, keyboardist Spooner Oldham and backup singers that include Emmylou Harris, Young's wife, Pegi, and the Fisk University Jubilee Singers.
"Heart of Gold" starts with snippets of interviews, shot by Demme himself, of some of Young's bandmates, emphasizing how far back many of them go with the singer and how much a sense of family matters to him in the people he plays with. Demme has said he visualized this film as a country music dream playing in Young's head, and it has taken special care both with its painted backdrop and with costumes designed by music couturier Manuel.
The costumes, however, are all simple ones, for "Heart of Gold" allows nothing to get in the way of the music. Demme and master cinematographer Ellen Kuras set up eight cameras around the room plus an onstage Steadicam and took a classic approach to filming Young concentrating on capturing the magic of the music and the personal interplay among the musicians.
There are no reaction shots from the crowd, no shots outside the Ryman once the music has begun. What we get instead, aided by veteran New York editor Andy Keir, is an immersion in the onstage experience. "Heart of Gold" has a wonderful naturalness to it, the ability to unfold as if every angle, every shot, every reaction puts us just where we want to be at every moment.
Even in a film like this, some songs have an especially strong charge: Young singing and relating the story behind "Old Man," playing something on Hank Williams' old guitar, talking about how overwhelmed he was the first time he heard Ian Tyson's "Four Strong Winds" and his closing the show with an unforgettable "One of These Days."
What "Heart of Gold" also reveals, almost without intending to, is what a quintessentially private person Young is, unaffected by and even mistrustful of fame.
We hear him before the concert, preparing to "let the muse have us, take a shot, send it out." We see him on stage after it's over, in a beautiful closing credits sequence, playing "The Old Laughing Lady" to an empty house. If there isn't a tear in your eye during some of the moments in between, don't tell me.
"Neil Young: Heart of Gold"
MPAA rating: PG for some drug-related lyrics