Virtually from the beginning of a career that’s closing in on the half-century mark, Neil Young has been both an obsessive archivist and a passionate believer in the nexus of rock music and film.
That combination goes a long way toward explaining why he’s made considerably more films than your average rock star and why he has returned time and again to the concert film genre attempting to find fresh approaches.
It also explains his friendships and collaborations with the likes of Jim Jarmusch (who directed 1997’s “Year of the Horse: Neil Young and Crazy Horse Live”) and Jonathan Demme (2006’s “Heart of Gold”), filmmakers who share his let’s-try-anything sensibility.
When Young and Demme last met creatively, they captured a largely solo acoustic performance by Young at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium in a film every bit as warm and sweet as its title.
In “Neil Young Trunk Show” (opening today for a one-week engagement at the Nuart), it’s as if the pair needed to show the world they hadn’t gone soft and squishy in their old age.
“Trunk Show,” shot during Young’s 2007-08 Chrome Dreams II tour on a stop at the venerable Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Pa., documents the “Caution: Rocker at Work” mise-en-scène of that set and reconfigures the actual structure of those shows in service of filmmaking.
When this writer covered that tour at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles, the show was neatly divided into two halves: The first, acoustic, presented Young at his most open and emotionally naked; for the second half, Young was at his most raucous, plugging in with the help of a band of longtime associates, including multi-instrumentalist Ben Keith, bassist Rick Rosas and Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina.
On screen, director Demme jettisons that real-world linearity, pingponging across the two segments, a strategy that heightens the energy in the movie’s taut 82 minutes. The decision also better serves a guerrilla filmmaking style that weaves together grainy Super 8 film footage and pristine high-def video. Hand-held cameras on stage and on the theater floor, along with others mounted in a variety of nontraditional places, combine to create surprising perspectives in such a well-trod genre.
Demme also sends cameras through the theater’s hallways and into dressing rooms, at one point looking in as Young contends between numbers with a split fingernail from thrashing his guitar sans pick.
The film includes several cornerstone numbers from his vast repertoire -- “Cinnamon Girl,” “Cowgirl in the Sand” and the timeless “Like a Hurricane” -- but also gives a generous sampling from the “Chrome Dreams II” album, which helps avoid excessive repetition, given the number of concert films Young has put out over the last four decades. The audio is characteristically crystalline.
Young was 62 on this tour and just two years past a life-threatening brain aneurysm. In the end you sense he truly is interested only in capturing and sharing the wild ride that he’s all too aware he’s on. It’s not about ego -- not with the unforgiving, inches-away shots of his thinning hair, graying sideburns and expanding jowls.
It’s not always pretty, but “Neil Young Trunk Show” is very much rock ‘n’ roll.