Neil Young: Heart of Gold

on February 10, 2006 by Francesca Dinglasan
During a panel discussion on "Neil Young: Heart of Gold" at this year's Sundance Film Festival, the star of the documentary and legendary musician noted about his onscreen collaboration with helmer Jonathan Demme that it "only looks like a concert film." At first glance, the comment seems misleading, considering the film features all the manifestations of the genre, including specific venue (Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium), performance dates (two shows in the summer of 2005), playlist (songs from Young's albums "Harvest," "Harvest Moon" and his latest release "Prairie Wind") and performers (Young, his profuse band and the Fisk University Jubilee Singers gospel choir). Young's observation, however, makes itself clear as "Heart of Gold" unfolds, revealing a production as dedicated to the visual and emotional impact of the songwriter's artistry as it is to his intrinsic musical merit.

Demme, whose previous concert films include the landmark "Stop Making Sense" featuring The Talking Heads, revealed at the same Sundance panel that the stylings of his latest musical documentary are modeled after the impact of Young's music, commenting, "Neil's lyrics evoke images in my head." With those images as a catalyst, Demme presents Young's concerts more as a series of song performances, definitively breaking between each tune, rather than a showcase of a single event from opening to closing numbers. Instead of producing a disjointed feel, the effect is an emphasis on the individual song, with onstage background sets and lighting tailored to fit the mood of each number. At the same time, Demme is respectful enough of the lyrical and historical dimensions of Young's oeuvre to avoid imposing his personal interpretation of the "images" derived by the musician's lyrics, instead allowing the music to inspire on its own.

The concert film's unifying force is, of course, Neil Young himself. Long hailed as a troubadour, Young's introduction of certain songs by way of storytelling -- such as the acquisition of Hank Williams' guitar before performing "This Old Guitar" -- serves as the connecting points between his classic and brand-new material. Anecdotes about his agrarian childhood in Canada and his late father, to whom the performances are dedicated, as well as a solo performance of "The Old Laughing Lady," with neither his band nor a live audience present, further personalize the mesmerizing and touching narrative that weaves throughout "Heart of Gold." Featuring Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Ben Keith, Spooner Oldham, Rick Rosas, Karl T. Himmel, Chad Cromwell and Wayne Jackson. Directed by Jonathan Demme. Produced by Jonathan Demme and Ilona Herzberg. A Paramount Classics release. Documentary. Rated PG for some drug- related lyrics. Running time: 103 min

Tags: Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Ben Keith, Spooner Oldham, Rick Rosas, Karl T. Himmel, Chad Cromwell, Wayne Jackson, Jonathan Demme, documentary, music

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