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.
There's something about the way Neil Young ends a song that is unique to him. Actually, a lot of rockers tend to do it, but not to the extent Young seems to do it. That is, just when you think the song is about to reach the end (that is, based on how one has heard the song so many times on an album), it goes on a little longer, or even for another several bars. Take the last song before the encore, 'Like a Hurricane'. Just when you think the song ends, Young keeps plucking those strings, getting that distortion going, and the band, for maybe just a moment, is not sure if the song is over yet either. They could go on, or stop right there. For Young, he's known the song for so long that he has to find a new way to play with it, to relate with the song, but that's just one part of it. Another is just the joy of doing what he does, which is going past a limit of the expected for his audience.
Young is now in his 60's, and looked even more grizzled and worn-out than ever, but in Jonathan Demme's latest concert film on Neil Young, he looks more raw and bad-ass than ever as well, ready to do any kind of music he can. His band, apparently, is set to do whatever he wants too (he mentions this in one of two backstage scenes, the only ones that break up the concert footage). So as part of this "trunk show", we get to see some of the loved Young tracks (Cinnamon Girl, Cowgirl in the Sand and Hurricane as the major ones), but mostly it's obscurer tracks in his catalog, some songs I had not even heard (I've listened to more than just the for-radio songs, though I'm not a hardcore fan).
How do these songs go? Some of them are delightful, mostly with just Neil sitting with his guitar and/or harmonica, and strumming some of his poetry to the audience (usually about being lonely, or wanting some love, or traveling, or something much darker yet sprinkled with hope). Unlike Heart of Gold we do get some of the real electric-stuff Young is known for, as he thrashes about on stage. Perhaps the most curious and frustrating and absorbing song is a near twenty minute number called 'No Hidden Path'. This is the kind of rock that may be unsurprising to those whose seen Young live in the past and have seen him jam out, but if you are just the fan of 'Cinnamon Girl' and Heart of Gold and tracks like that, it may seem to go on and on and on, and not in the amazing way I mentioned before of a track's way of not ending by Young's command of the guitar. It's an impressive feat of control to keep the song going (and for Demme to follow along), but it does drag on in a couple of spots.
Trunk Show is worth the while for any halfway Young fan, however, just to see he and his band-mates really rocking the house down. It's intense and beautiful song playing (at one point even featuring a banjo!) and Demme and his lighting choreographer Mike Baldassari give it a distinct look. This director knows how to shoot a concert movie, and captures Young's face in profile, often, with warmth and edge (as opposed to just warmth in Heart of Gold). It's also fantastic to see some experimentation; a few times Demme decides to give a 360 perspective and shows nine-screens like a tic-tac-toe field of all of the angles on Neil and his band, so that the audience can pick and choose where to look, as if at a concert. While the decision to let a Young creation called "The Sultan" on stage at the end, and a fine but weird painter in the background, make for unnecessary clutter, when Demme focuses on what he needs to film, it makes for compelling viewing.
Trunk Show may not have the intimacy of Heart of Gold, but it does capture the spirit of Young playing live in a thrilling, intimate fashion, maybe more akin to Jarmusch's Year of the Horse. We're shown 80 minutes of Young being Young, and you can take it or leave it. I say, more please!
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