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Neil Young turned 60 last year. It was not his easiest year. His father died, a man very dear to Young, the man who really started Young on his long musical career when he gave him an Arthur Godfrey ukulele when he was seven or so. To make a grievous year worse, Young was discovered to have a life threatening cerebral aneurysm and required two surgical procedures to correct it, operations that were sandwiched in between recording sessions for his newest album, "Prairie Wind." Nevertheless, he came back and, surrounded by his longtime favorite musician friends and others, gave a whale of a pair of concerts on August 18 and 19, 2005, at Nashville's fabled Ryman Auditorium, home to the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974. Jonathan Demme and a first rate camera crew shot the show, and this film is the result.
Demme, better known to many for his narrative films, like "The Silence of the Lambs," "Philadelphia" and "Beloved," brings plenty of experience to making performance films as well. In 1984 he collaborated with David Byrne and Talking Heads to make the highly regarded concert film, "Stop Making Sense," and in 1998 he filmed a concert by Brit folk-soft rocker Robyn Hitchcock, "Storefront Hitchcock." He also filmed the late monologist Spalding Gray's "Swimming to Cambodia" in 1987, and has made short performance films and videos with Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. "Heart of Gold" opens with brief, informal interview segments with several of the band members and a few glimpses of Nashville in the vicinity of The Ryman. Then we cut to the chase, the concert itself, which has two segments.
In the first part, Young and his band perform all but one of the 10 numbers on the "Prairie Wind" album; after that, there's a series of Young's past hits. There's just one song written by somebody else, Young's fellow Canadian Ian Tyson's wistful 1963 ballad, "Four Strong Winds," which Young tells the audience was an inspiration to him when he was getting started in music at age 17 or so. The concert is beautiful in every respect. Young still can deliver in his distinctively soulful, mellow, plains roots manner, often shifting up an octave into falsetto, a trademark sound of his. The accompanying musical group and their arrangements are all marvelous.
The cinematography, a team effort led by DP Ellen Kuras ("I Shot Andy Warhol," "Bamboozled," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "No Direction Home - Bob Dylan"), is sublime. Camera angles are imaginative; the shots are simple and held long, never distracting the viewer's attention from the musicians; and the focus is always on the stage, no swoopy audience shots are allowed. The editing, by Andy Keir ("Mandela," Beloved," "The Secret Lives of Dentists," "Off the Map") is just as it should be for a musical performance film: not a single song is interrupted even once. Stage backdrops in lovely colors - muted yellows and ochres enhance the visual effects.
The concert nicely balanced the new with the old in Young's music. If the fresh songs from "Prairie Wind" don't include any obvious blockbuster hits in the making, the uniform virtuosity with which they are written and delivered indicates that Young's talent is still very much intact. Before a song inspired by his 21 year old daughter, Young says he used to write numbers like this for women his own age when he was young, and "I've still got a few left in me." Maybe I'm starting a new genre now, though, one for "empty nester" songs, he goes on to say.
Young doesn't shy away from nostalgia here. And why should he? At 60, a survivor of a bad year, with a wondrous songbook behind him, it is that time in life for anyone to begin to be reflective. He talks about his much used guitar, which he bought from Grant Boatwright years ago. It once belonged to Hank Williams, who played it on the Ryman stage in his last appearance there in 1951.
For anyone whose formative or defining life experiences were, like mine, sometimes accompanied by Young's music from his 1968 hit with Buffalo Springfield, "I Am a Child," and "Heart of Gold," in 1972, onward this concert is sure to be emotionally compelling. For that matter, anyone who appreciates country-pop music, and the images of traditional Americana it evokes, cannot fail to find satisfaction watching this movie, satisfaction we also see in the faces of the players themselves, several of whom have worked with Young for 30 years or more, so glad to be back on stage with each other and with Young, their leader, feeling stronger again and healing.
With Emmylou Harris (vocals, guitar), Ben Keith (band leader, steel guitar), Spooner Oldham (keyboards), Rick Rosas (bass), Grant Boatwright (guitar), Karl T. Himmel and Chad Cromwell (drums), Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns (trumpet), Neil's wife Pegi Young (vocals, guitar), Anthony Crawford (vocals, guitar), Diana Dewitt (vocals), Gary Pigg (vocals), Tom McGinley (tenor sax), Jimmy Sharp (guitar, vocals), Clinton Gregory (fiddle), Larry Cragg (guitar, banjo, trombone, fiddle, vocals, broom), the Fisk University Singers and The Nashville String Machine. My grade: A 10/10.
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