Neil Young Journeys is director Jonathan Demme’s documentary of the last two nights of Young’s solo world tour performing at Toronto’s Massey Hall. The uncut performances, almost entirely from his 2010 album Le Noise, are interspersed with footage of Young driving around his hometown of Omemee, Ontario, in a 1956 Crown Victoria. In the car, he tells stories about his childhood, showing Demme the places where he grew up, almost all of which have been completely destroyed. This is the third documentary Demme has made with Young, the first being Neil Young: Heart of Gold, where Young performed in Nashville the year after surviving a brain aneurysm, and the other Neil Young Trunk Show, which captured a Pennsylvania concert during his Chrome Dreams II tour.
Young’s performances on the last two nights of his tour are often dark and deeply sad, broken up by markedly stirring performances of “Ohio,” “Down By The River,” “Hey Hey My My,” and a surprisingly light and gentle new song, “Leia,” written for a friend’s baby girl. In light of these tormented performances, the scenes of Young in Omemee seem totally incongruous. Young spends all four of the brief interludes simply describing things that no longer exist, and telling humorous, if inconsequent, stories about things he did when he was little. The footage seems to only confirm its own irrelevance; it is clear Young, though he may have come from here, has little connection to this town any longer. During these car rides, Young is never asked questions about his life, his music or anything that’s shaped who he is as an artist. Demme has repeatedly been given an amazing opportunity to really delve into Young’s work and his mind, and over and over he turns a blind eye, accepting the most superficial of examinations.
Demme also makes some strange cinematographic choices that make the concert feel jarring and uncomfortable rather than producing the artsy, cool effect he seems to be after. Specifically, he places a camera on the bottom of Young’s microphone, giving an extreme close-up that only captures from the bottom of his nose to his chin. The shot is used repeatedly throughout the film and held for bizarrely long periods of time. The disquietude of the shot is amplified by how intimate it already feels simply to be watching Young perform. His music is almost accusatory; touching on deeply personal themes and ideas. Watching him perform live can often feel as though you’ve stumbled onto a private moment between a man and his guitar. So an extreme close-up held for almost an entire song starts to feel like the most serious of intrusions. (It’s also not much to look at, particularly by the point Young accidently spits on the camera.)
The film also vacillates between being wildly over-didactic and completely vague. When Young performs “Ohio,” a song about the four students killed at Kent State, not only are the words “Kent State May 4, 1970” projected on the screen, but also the images of the four students with their names are shown three separate times during the performance while Young sings over archival footage of the violence. Later, however, when Young sings “You Never Call,” only a single photo of Young’s son, Ben, with his friend Larry Johnson is shown with no explanation or context. Demme seems to assume that his audience has a deep biographical knowledge of Young, while simultaneously having absolutely no cultural or historical understanding.
That being said, Young is enchanting to watch. There is a reason he has had such a long and successful career as a musician and performer: watching him is enthralling and, at times, chill-inducing. But Young cannot carry a film by himself, particularly a film that seems more of a mega fan’s homage than a serious documentary, and at best is a solid concert recording. However, if you are a Neil Young fan, particularly of his work on Le Noise, then this film offers a rare chance to experience an incredibly intimate performance from a rock-and-roll icon.
Director: Jonathan Demme
Starring: Neil Young
Release Date: June 29, 2012