Not to knock films as fantastic as his Rachel Getting Married, The Silence of the Lambs and Something Wild, but there's something wilder — or at least, more directly stimulating and pure — about Jonathan Demme's live-performance docs. The 68-year-old auteur immortalized a Talking Heads show (and David Byrne's oversized suit jacket) in Stop Making Sense, cinematically enlarged a cozy Robyn Hitchcock set in Storefront Hitchcock and discovered a like-minded collaborator in the titular troubadour of 2006's Neil Young: Heart of Gold and 2009's Neil Young Trunk Show. Teaming with the Canadian legend again, Demme and five other camera operators expertly capture an intense, pared-down 2011 solo show at Toronto's Massey Hall in the absorbing new Neil Young Journeys.
"We used to joke about going for a trilogy," Demme says, he and Young in good spirits after having returned from a stroll in the warm Manhattan breeze. "But we just do them one at a time, and it's a de facto trilogy because there's three of them."
Intercut between these songs — the setlist emphasizing Young's then-recent, 33rd studio album, Le Noise, but not without perennial faves like "After the Gold Rush" and "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" — "journeys" becomes both a noun and a verb. Tooling around with Demme in a 1956 Crown Victoria, scenes of Young's two-hour road trip from his northern Ontario hometown of Omemee to the concert hall is full of wistfully remembered childhood characters and milestones: idyllic fishing holes, a prankster named Goof Whitman, his famous literary father being the only white character in a minstrel show full of Irish-Canadians in blackface.
Ever the avuncular raconteur, Young enthralls with even a throwaway observation about how his brother, Bob — also en route, in the '91 Cadillac ahead — drives at precisely the right speed. Such moments feel like they might one day be spun into lyrics.
All this reminiscing suggests a question: What means more to the bard's artistic output, reflecting on the past or keeping up with the present? "Tomorrow's the most important thing to me," Young casually responds, almost as if songwriting in real time. "Today's second. Today's good. Tomorrow could be better."
Onstage, behind a piano or sitting with a guitar and harmonica, Young doesn't need a backup band to take control of the room — or a movie theater. Certainly it helps that, as a hardcore audiophile, he developed an optimized sound system named Pono, which delivers the music at a higher-than-standard digital resolution, meaning some auditoriums will need an upgrade to fully honor the robust bass and enhanced clarity. The other advantage is having an expert filmmaker on hand who has long developed practical techniques to document live concerts and still make us feel like we were there.
Demme offers up his tricks and strategies: "Don't show the audience that was present while we're filming because that makes us feel a little secondary. This movie's for the moviegoers. Cut as little as possible, and cut only when it's important. Trust the music. The big, fun part is trying to crawl inside the performance and come up with a cinematic vehicle that is organic to the themes and stories that Neil's telling. You can get lost in this stuff. It's very exciting."
Split screen and odd camera angles from as far away as the mixing board squash any opportunities for visual monotony, with the film's most lyrical bout of spontaneity occurring when a tiny mic-mounted camera aimed at Young's grizzled jaw is hit with flying spittle during "Hitchhiker," producing a lo-fi kaleidoscopic filter that fits the "unhinged" song, as Demme calls it.
He elaborates: "Declan Quinn, our director of photography, said we're going to get a close-up that no one's ever gotten before, of Neil's face, without the microphone in the foreground. The nut had loosened a little bit, so Declan's first thought was 'Aw, shit!' But I said: 'Wait a minute. Look. That's the mouth, the portal. The voice comes out of there; the story comes out of there.' When we saw the spit, we knew we couldn't use it a lot, but I was confident we could find a good place for it."
The crowd naturally erupts when Young breaks into a surly, sad rendition of "Ohio," which would still be blistering even without the names and photos of the 1970 Kent State shooting victims superimposed onscreen. After who knows how many performances, how does he still muster up such immediacy and anger in a four-decade-old protest song?
"You'd probably be more amazed at how little I've done the song," Young replies. "I didn't think it was right to do it over and over again. This tour, this collection of songs, this presentation told me that it was a good fit."
"We've just heard it a million times," Demme says — whether Young has played it often or not. The discussion drifts into the self-awareness of being filmed while performing. Young swears he doesn't even remember the cameras that night, and though he's "looked at it all the way through," he feels it's difficult to watch the film because, well, it's just him. The idea of self-critique is particularly unappealing to such a seasoned performer.
"I know what's wrong with it," Young says, "but I knew what was wrong while I was doing it. I try to block that out of my mind. Nothing's perfect, it's just what it is. I don't dwell on it and try to stay with the meaning of the songs in the moment.
Demme interrupts: "Just watching those clips last night with you, it's like your outpouring is so intense, I could see how it would almost be embarrassing for you, seeing yourself being so emotional. Not the quality of the singing or the guitar playing, but just, wow."
"Yeah," Young murmurs under his breath. "You don't want to watch that."