The concert film has never looked or sounded classier than Jonathan Demme's superbly crafted "Neil Young: Heart of Gold." In capturing and melding two performances of Young and his band of master musicians last August at Nashville's acoustically legendary Ryman Auditorium, Demme challenges himself to create a poetic work that's far more than a mere recording of artists at the top of their game, while deepening his long involvement with music on film. Stately, classical and even deliberately old-fashioned, February release will have a challenge in attracting crowds beyond Young's legion of fans, but is destined as a vid perennial.
Only months before the gig, Young had been diagnosed with a potentially fatal brain aneurysm. Faced with mortality, he penned his latest album, "Prairie Wind," in a creative flurry -- like his early classics, "Harvest" and "Harvest Moon," a song cycle rooted in his experiences and memories growing up on the Canadian Midwest plains. (Young successfully went through surgery.)
Concert was conceived as a narrative epic of sorts, linking the new songs with the best-known work from the two earlier albums, resulting in Young's grandest statement yet on the effects of time, age, nature and kinfolk on one's world view.
"Heart of Gold" is vastly different from Young's own recent, inventive and rough-hewn film, "Greendale," or Demme's terrific concert film with Talking Heads, "Stop Making Sense." Young is stronger than ever as a singer of immense expression, and his saga of life and family in the country recalls Elton John's "Tumbleweed Connection" and David Ackles' unjustly forgotten "American Gothic" albums.
After brief interviews with key bandmates en route to the Ryman, pic launches into the concert with a subtle Steadicam move from the crowd and up to the stage. First half is devoted to songs from "Prairie Wind," smoothly presented with only brief fades or breaks between tunes, and with some wonderfully charming and folksy intros by Young. Vet viewers of concert films will soon realize that this is a career-summing pic in the same kind of way that Martin Scorsese's "The Last Waltz" was for the Band.
One of the most redolent "Wind" songs is "This Old Guitar," dedicated to Young's acoustic guitar, dubbed "Hank" because it was once owned by Hank Williams. In his intro, Young notes that this may be "Hank's" first time back at the Ryman since Williams' last gig there in 1951, thus sweetly sealing the vital country connection in the country-rock sensibility that's always been at the center of Young's songwriting.
At the same time, most of the new and old songs are firmly rooted in Canada and Young's farming family, emphasized by the magnificently rendered landscape murals of prairie life conceived by production designer Michael Zansky.
Transition in concert to the '70s classics is perhaps the most impressively subtle aspect of both performance and film. Typically, vet pop stars' concerts that start with fresh material and then dip into the song catalog devolve into a pandering trip down memory lane; not so with Young. Here, the strands of memory and mortality that thread the work in "Prairie Wind" do the same for the "Harvest"-era songs.
As "Greendale" attested, Young has been in the midst of an artistic renaissance, and as both writer and singer, he has never seemed musically and personally more vital than in Demme's film. He drives an excellent band, including core members Ben Keith (a standout on pedal steel guitar), Spooner Oldham, Rick Rosas, Karl Himmel, Chad Cromwell, Wayne Jackson, Grant Boatwright, Larry Cragg (performing on broom, no less, on "Harvest Moon") with superb vocal backup by, among others, Pegi Young (Young's wife) and Emmylou Harris.
Demme's eight-camera coverage is precisely judged for each song, with close-ups and medium shots favored over wide views. Since the stage performance was lit and designed for film, ace d.p. Ellen Kuras employs an array of tools (including beautifully chosen spotlights) to create a painterly look. Though it's hard to detect, each band member wears a distinct yet subtle costume, designed in frontier motifs by Manuel. Editor Andy Keir plays a musical role himself, cutting exactly to the tempi of the tunes.
Camera (Deluxe color), Ellen Kuras; editor, Andy Keir; music, Neil Young, Ian Tyson; music mixer, Chad Hailey; production designer, Michael Zansky; costume designer, Manuel; sound (Dolby Digital), Chris Newman; supervising sound editor, Paul Urmson; associate producer, Mia Lee; assistant director, Anthony M. Hemingway. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 23, 2006. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 103 MIN.