Neil Young: Heart of Gold
Mike Hall 12/02/2007
Concert films, like live albums, are often a quick cash-in on success, little more than a souvenir for those present at the recording and of little artistic merit.
Concert films by Jonathan Demme, like live albums by Neil Young, are the bold, brilliant exceptions to the rule. They offer so much more than a souvenir, so much more than a 'recording of a gig'. To find the two combined in this glorious motion picture is a once-in-a-cultural-lifetime sort of treat. Demme gave us possibly the finest concert film in history with his 'Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense' while Young has made many fine live recordings, the most notable of which being the mighty, feedback and gen-x-angst-drenched 'Weld'.
Focusing on the world premiere of Young's much-underrated 'Prairie Wind' album in Nashville, Tennessee it's a film that manages to transcend the norm by virtue of its' very existence - many of the songs included here were written while Young was under a potential death sentence from a brain aneurysm - and by its' use of Young and his music as a palate from which the director paints, utilising the warm, fragile colours of these 'country' songs to highlight the fragility of the performance itself.
The defining segment of the film comes during the heart-wrenching 'When God Made Me', a purposely naïve song questioning the religious separatism of the modern world. Demme moves in from a long shot of Young, hunched at a piano, ever closer until there is only his profile and thick auburn light filling the screen; we see a face as a landscape, a man as a country, a song not something written but something elemental. It is an astonishing moment.
It is this give and take between the two artists that ignites the magic of 'Heart of Gold'. The quality of the songs themselves is extremely high, from the yearning harmonies of 'Old Man' to the epic, mournful 'Prairie Wind' itself they deal lyrically with a past half remembered in the twilight of advancing years, a desire for a return to youthful exuberance, and an acceptance of the impossibility of that wish. Demme takes these themes and lays them bare -the players portrayed as travellers, journeymen of rock n' roll, who've seen and done it all and can still lean back and play with a wistful smile.
But don't take this as some safe, gentle sentimental journey. As homely as the set and as inviting as the lighting may be, Young still has bite - lyrics bemoaning the cursed memories of 9/11 contrast wonderfully with swooning steel pedal guitar, and while songs about family and love may seem trite, it is hard not to suspect that he sees the downfall of a man as a metaphor for the end of something on a grander scale, perhaps America itself.
Demme's film is a hypnotic, uplifting experience that imagines the possibilities of live performance documentation and begins, brilliantly, to fulfil those dreams.