The war in Iraq is the backdrop as the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young "Freedom of Speech Tour" crisscrosses North America. Echoes of Vietnam-era anti-war sentiment abound as the band connects with today's audiences.
First, I will say: I recommend seeing the movie without reading anything about it. Just go, sit yourself down, and open your eyes and ears.
Without being heavy-handed the film takes you into the music and the unique energy of a live show. One of my favorite details was seeing a singer in the Fisk University choir getting into the music.
Groups of musicians would step on and off stage: the Fisk University choir (local to Nashville?), a small string orchestra, and a horn section. The backup singers including Emmylou Harris and Pegi Young were fixtures (sorry, don't know the third singer). Some of the best scenes, I thought, were of the backup singers crooning into a single mic. Neil Young crooning with a choir of black voices is an unexpected aural delight.
Though I have long been a fan of Neil Young, this film was the first time I saw what a formidable performer he is. He owns the stage and the hall. He and his band are more precise and polished -- even in their grittiness and "rustiness" -- than I would have expected.
The film is gorgeous to look at. You get to look in detail at the band members -- their clothes, their faces, their hair, one with a bulbous nose. And the pedal steel player's fingers and restrained soulfulness. My heart leapt when I heard the banjo player come in on "Old Man." It was interesting to hear some of the newer Prairie Wind material towards the top of the show. The second song absolutely knocked my socks off. Still, hearing the well-known older songs (Old Man, Heart of Gold) was like encountering an old friend unexpectedly.
I was wondering how the sound quality was achieved. This was a major factor in the film's success: at peak moments the ensemble works up to an incredible momentum and texture. Seeing the chemistry of the band members at these points is exhilarating. Demme captures that very well -- but again, without forcing it on you.
Some of the backdrops for the band were surprisingly cheesy. I have to think there's a whisper of irony in the hearth scenery with the easy chair (and antlers, as I recall).
I thought of Christopher Guest's "A Mighty Wind" more than once. One song in particular about his dog, in which Neil starts snuffling into the mic, could have come straight out of "Mighty Wind."
Make no mistake: Neil Young is a philosopher-king of rock and roll. His band and the dedicated people around him seem essential to what he achieves.
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