"Neil Young Journeys," the new concert film reuniting the idiosyncratic Canadian rocker and director Jonathan Demme, raises the notion of "spitting distance" to a whole new level.
While filming Young in concert last year at Massey Hall in Toronto, Demme employed microphone-mounted cameras to capture the performance from unusual angles, including close-ups of Young's mouth. In the middle of the song "Hitchhiker," which traces the musician's life story from his early years in Canada through rock stardom in the U.S., saliva lands directly on the camera lens.
"I thought it was pretty psychedelic -- all the colors are spewed around and everything," Young, 66, said with an enigmatic smile. He was seated on a sofa at his Beverly Hills Hotel suite on a recent trip through town to shoot a music video. "That's how close you are -- dangerously close."
Demme too never thought twice about replacing that shot. "When he sings a song about every single drug he's ever taken and, while singing it, gobs the lens and creates a psychedelic effect, it was almost like a mandate to use it," Demme, 68, said in a separate interview from his home in Rockland County, N.Y.
The film -- which opens June 29 for limited theatrical runs in L.A. (at the Nuart) and in New York and will screen during the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival this month -- is just one of many projects Young has coming to fruition over the next few months.
His first album in nine years with Crazy Horse, "Americana," was released last week and will be followed by another Neil Young & Crazy Horse album this fall. Young commissioned street artist Shepard Fairey to create 11 paintings -- one for each of the new album's songs -- that will be on exhibit June 28 through July 14 at Hollywood's Perry Rubenstein Gallery. Oct. 1 will bring the publication of Young's first book, "Waging Heavy Peace." Music and art aside, he's also still perfecting his LincVolt -- a conversion of a 1959 Lincoln Continental into a green electric vehicle -- as well as organizing the annual Bridge School benefit concerts he oversees with his singer-songwriter wife, Pegi.
As for the new film, "Neil Young Journeys" reflects the ongoing relationship between the respected auteurs Young and Demme. Though from different artistic genres, they worked together on the 2006 concert film "Heart of Gold" and 2010's "Neil Young Trunk Show."
"Heart of Gold," shot not long after Young had undergone brain surgery in 2005 to relieve a potentially life-threatening aneurysm, seemed to emphasize the therapeutic and restorative properties of music. "Neil Young Trunk Show," visually much grittier than the warm look of "Heart of Gold," underscored the visceral energy central to a rock 'n' roll performance.
With "Journeys," Demme appears to sidestep the fan perspective to hone in on the experience of playing music, lingering generously on shots of Young's hands as they work different guitars and keyboards, his mouth as he sings, his face as he wrestles with questions posed in his lyrics, including, "When will I learn how to give back?/ When will I learn how to heal?" as he does in "Rumblin'."
Demme, whose 1984 documentary of Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense tour has long been regarded as one of the best concert movies ever made, said his approach in marrying music and film is fairly simple: "My role, in a performance film," he said, "is to try to think and feel like the artist, so that the visuals become as much a reflection as possible of the film's themes and the stories that are coming from the storyteller."
Young, however, makes it sound as if he's almost the hired help. "Jonathan's the artist here; I'm just the performer," said Young, who's assembled numerous concert films over a career that stretches back nearly five decades. "When I'm working with Jonathan, I pretty well give myself up and do what he wants to do."
The 2010-11 tour documented in "Journeys" was built around songs from his Daniel Lanois-produced album "Le Noise," supplemented by a handful of cornerstone songs from his deep catalog. In the new songs, he reflected on the loss of friends over time, the value of family, the importance of cultural traditions.
"It's much like my 'Harvest' period, inasmuch as the intensity of the inner workings of whatever I'm doing, it's reflective," he said. "The songs are personal, the performance is very personal, yet the instruments are very unusual."
He's referring to guitars specially prepared by Lanois in ways unlike audiences are used to hearing them -- technology that heightens their musical range and sonic richness. Young also has incorporated into the film new audio playback technology he's developed to capture the full dynamic range of the music as heard by the live audience.
Between the solo nature of the performance and the acoustically enhanced audio fidelity of the soundtrack, "Neil Young Journeys" takes on a distinctly different character than either of the previous films Demme directed. It also offers a travelogue component, where performances are intercut with scenes of Young revisiting his hometown of Omemee, Ontario.
As a teenager, Young played with his band the Squires in Winnipeg, Manitoba, then formed Buffalo Springfield in Los Angeles in 1966. He went on to forge a successful solo career filled with varied projects and collaborated with Crosby, Stills & Nash and the band Crazy Horse, among many others.
He and Crazy Horse are together again for "Americana," an unusual project consisting of amped-up electrified workouts on 11 songs mostly out of the traditional folk music songbook, from Stephen Foster's "Oh! Susanna" to Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land." "It had been a year or so since I'd written anything," Young said of going into the recording studio with the band once again.
"It was great to play with Crazy Horse, but I didn't have any [new] material. So we went ahead and did all these folk songs."
The album was sparked to some degree while Young was writing "Waging Heavy Peace." He thought back on bands that had influenced him when he was growing up, many of which were caught up at the time in the folk music revival of the 1950s and early '60s.
"When we got to the end of that record, I didn't feel like stopping," Young said. "By then I was starting to write again, so I wrote this suite of songs, and then I wrote a bunch more, and since we were recording, I just went ahead and recorded them. So I ended up with a couple of albums' worth of material."
The second Crazy Horse album is slated for fall release -- he and the group will play the Hollywood Bowl on Oct. 17 -- but as with everything in Young's world, that is subject to change. Like the Buffalo Springfield reunion tour that had been announced after a small handful of shows Young did last year with former bandmates Stephen Stills and Richie Foray, and then scrapped.
"One thing leads to another, and that's the way I played that," Young said. "There are too many balls in the air to play it any other way. It's just kind of like juggling."
Right now, he has plenty to juggle, given the pair of Crazy Horse albums, the art collaboration with Fairey, the Demme film and the book, on top of myriad other projects such as his LincVolt and the Bridge School benefits.
Asked whether all the activity coming to fruition at once is part of a grand plan, Young said, "There's really no plan. Sometimes it works out; sometimes it doesn't work out.
"This time it appears that everything is working, and I'm lucky. And everything won't work one of these days. You just have to be ready for it to work, and then for it to not work. It doesn't matter. You just have to try to make it as good as you can."