Friday October 17, 1997
The fine-tuned avalanche that is the music of Neil Young and Crazy Horse is treated with wary respect by Jim Jarmusch in his new "Year of the Horse," a concert film-group portrait that captures as well as any other music movie the natural, untethered essence of live rock. As he would with any uncontrollable force of nature, Jarmusch knows enough to get out of the way and let the good times roll.
Welding performances from the band's 1996 European and U.S. tours to footage shot in both '86 and '76 ("Like a Hurricane," played 20 years apart, is a trip), Jarmusch portrays a band that is, its members are quick to admit, far better than its parts. They bring to one another an energy that individually eludes them; on stage, the union manifests itself in occasionally angelic harmonies, nuclear guitar playing and the overall elevation provided by Young's songwriting.
Where Young ends and Crazy Horse begins has always been a question--not a burning one, granted, but for inquisitive fans the relationship is enigmatic. Young, between other projects (even his long-ago sojourn with Crosby, Stills & Nash), has played with the ramshackle Horse for almost 30 years and refers to the group simply as Crazy Horse. The others--drummer Ralph Molina, bassist Billy Talbot and guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro, all of whom sing--always refer to their band as Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Such rock 'n' roll diplomacy probably says a lot about why they've stuck together.
So does the music, of course, which requires a certain indulgence on the part of the listener, just as it thrives on the self-indulgences of the band. Jarmusch, trying to emulate the aesthetic of Crazy Horse on film, lets them have their head, as it were, using complete performances of songs, with their overheated jams and elaborate endings that are pure bombast and final chords that seem like 140-decibel exclamation points.
While Jarmusch may occasionally accent a performance with roughhewn landscapes and other visual ephemera (a hand-drawn choo-choo, for instance, which is a reference to Young's model train obsession), he never gets in the way, never edits a song. It's their film, and by getting out of the way as much as he does, Jarmusch makes "Year of the Horse" as much a statement about creative freedom as it is about music itself.
The Jarmusch-Young collaboration began when Young did the soundtrack to Jarmusch's underappreciated "Dead Man," continued with Jarmusch's direction of a Young video and has progressed to "Year of the Horse," which, besides being a concert film, tries to tell the band's story. It's a group with a high mortality rate--original guitarist Danny Whitten (Sampedro's predecessor) died of a heroin overdose in the early '70s, and producer David Briggs and roadie Bruce Berry also have died.
They all get tributes, while Jarmusch gets heckled; you think you can capture the essence of a group that's been together 30-odd years just by bringing around your camera and making a movie so people think you're cool? Sampedro's macho routine is good-natured, but frankly, if they had any sense, the guys in Crazy Horse would thank Jarmusch for creating such a complimentary and kinetic portrait of their tie-dyed, T-shirted and occasionally transcendent band.
Year of the Horse, 1997. Unrated. October Films. A Jim Jarmusch film. Director Jim Jarmusch. Executive producers Bernard Shakey, Elliot Rabinowitz. Producer L.A. Johnson. Cinematographers L.A. Johnson, Jim Jarmusch. Editor Jay Rabinowitz. Sound Tim Mulligan. Music Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.