Jonathan Demme doesn’t want you to misunderstand. He loves directing big studio movies like “The Manchurian Candidate” and “The Silence of the Lambs.” “When you get a great script, it’s unbelievably exciting, and with Hollywood money you get a dream cast.”
But, oh, the lure of the concert film.
“Filming great live music is a whole nother thing,” the energetic, articulate director says. “There’s something very pure about it, you don’t have to do another take to make it realer.” Not to mention all the ancillary benefits: “We didn’t have no previews, we didn’t have no market research, we didn’t have no script conference. We didn’t have no notes.”
Demme may be an Oscar-winning filmmaker, but fans of music on film will always think of him as the director of 1984’s knockout Talking Heads movie, “Stop Making Sense.” Now he’s made another concert film just as good but completely different in tone, “Neil Young: Heart of Gold,” recorded live at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, which had its premiere Monday night at the Sundance Film Festival.
“With the Talking Heads and another film I considered making with Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey, it was a question of seeing the show and saying, ‘Wow, this could live on screen,’ ” Demme says.
With the more contemplative, more moving Young film, the genesis and the aims were more complex and rooted in Demme’s great admiration for Young’s music in general and his latest album in particular.
“Neil is so utterly real and completely magical, an incredible combination, and I fell so in love with ‘Prairie Wind,’ it’s a masterwork by someone at the peak of his creative abilities,” he says. “It’s totally humanistic, completely devoid of cynicism, and I can’t tell you how much I love that in this day and age.”
The particular qualities of “Prairie Wind” stem in part from the circumstances of its birth: Young wrote the songs in a rush after the double emotional blows of his father’s death and the fact he had a brain aneurysm that required immediate surgery.
Demme had known Young since he’d asked him to write a song for the director’s “Philadelphia.” Young had in turn asked Demme to work on his own “Greendale.” Though that didn’t happen, Demme says, “it stuck in my mind that Neil Young would like to collaborate on a movie. At a point when I wasn’t up to finding a big old script, I said, ‘I wonder what Neil Young is up to?’ ” The answer was “Prairie Wind.”
Before filming could begin, there was what Demme calls “four or five months of yakety-yak, talking and listening” to come up with a form for the project, the notion of a concert at the legendary Ryman, for many years the home of the Grand Ole Opry. “The more we talked about it, the more the live show at the Ryman was difficult to beat,” he says.
All that talking helped forge a relationship between two people who expect to be in charge. “Neil is used to being the master of his world, and though I view filmmaking as very collaborative, the buck stops with the director,” Demme explains. That’s evident in what songs were chosen and why.
“The ‘Prairie Wing’ songs alone would have made for a 55-minute movie, so I asked Neil if he was amenable to an encore dimension to flesh out the running time, and he said yes, he would pick songs from his Nashville body of work,” Demme says. “Neil always wanted to end the show with ‘One of These Days,’ which I thought was fine, but I had no idea how moving that would be until I saw the concert. It was very visionary of Neil to understand that was the summing-up song.”
Demme says he visualized “Heart of Gold,” which includes such Young classics as “I Am a Child,” “Old Man” and “Harvest Moon,” as “a dream, an ongoing dream of country music. This concert is going on in Neil Young’s head, it’s his dream of his favorite places and songs.”
Demme begins the film with brief introductory interviews with longtime bandmates like pedal steel legend Ben Keith and bass player Rick Rosas. “I shot that stuff myself with a digital camera, I wanted it to be crude and funky looking and then have the film deliver us to Ellen Kuras’ exquisitely lighted Super 16 camerawork.”
“Heart of Gold” was shot with eight cameras in the room and a Steadicam onstage, and the way Demme and Kuras used them was very much informed by the director’s previous work.
“ ‘Stop Making Sense’ was a wonderful experience, and I wanted to take what I learned and apply it but without duplication,” Demme says. “And that pushed me toward limited camera movement.
“Because Neil is the kind of artist he is, the most important shots are going to be close-ups. I wanted two close-ups of him at all times, and two full-figure shots at all times. We aspired to sustained takes, to being up close and intimate, to letting the music take over. Trusting the songs, trusting the players, it was as simple as that.”
“And,” the director adds with a grin, “so much music has been filmed by now, I honestly felt that if we went for this classic approach, with fixed cameras and extended takes, it might just feel fresh and avant-garde.”
What it feels as well, as Young’s songs have their potent cumulative effect, is deeply emotional, something which took the director a bit by surprise. “I felt it in the editing process, it sneaks up on you,” Demme says. “I had great confidence in it being a beautiful film, but I said to myself, ‘This is very good, this is A-plus.’ ”