Neil Young: Heart of Gold

Neil Young on stage in Jonathan Demme's Heart of Gold



Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads film, Stop Making Sense, is one of the best concert documentaries ever made. Now he’s done the same favour for Neil Young, who was just recovering from a brain aneurysm when he delivered this two-part country set in Nashville. The title itself is something of a misnomer, or a hard sell (take your pick) since the first part of the concert is Young’s Prairie Wind album in its totality. It’s only in part two that Young gets the back catalogue out, mostly songs from Harvest, After the Gold Rush and Harvest Moon, his slight return to the acoustic-y banjo-y style of Harvest.

As with Stop Making Sense Demme starts slow, not with the empty stage/boombox this time but right up close, with lots of yellow filtration, the age written on the musicians’ faces being Demme’s focus, this being a look back from the mountain top at the path ascended. Young is also in reflective mood, as you might be if you’d been on an operating table only recently, and in confessional mood too – he owns up to being a country guy, admitting that he used to think of himself as a bit of a hippie (like it was some dark chapter in his life), and how, as soon as he earned enough money, he bought a farm. See, country. Hence the importance of Hank Williams’s guitar, which he now owns, and which Young spends quite a bit of time talking about on stage, in almost mystical terms. Between these bits of stage chat we meet members of the band, who seem to genuinely love the boss, then it’s back to the stage. There’s no point pretending that Young looks like the handsome, rangy guy he did in his youth. He doesn’t, in fact he looks like a seedcorn salesman.

But his looks are entirely appropriate. This is a folksy, unashamedly sentimental, nostalgic event, with Young telling stories of dads and daughters, the old times, the folly of youth. It is very poignant. As for the music, it is note perfect, with Emmylou Harris pitching in on backing vocals, helping the likes of pedal-steel king Ben Keith turn what could have been a run-through of familiar songs into an evening of lush, almost agonising sweetness. Yes, I’m a Young fan, but I’d never have expected that watching him on film would bring a tear to the eye.

© Steve Morrissey 2006



Neil Young: Heart of Gold – at Amazon




4 thoughts on “Neil Young: Heart of Gold”

  1. This is a must see for Neil fans! Just shot in August of 2005. Not the Last Waltz but a great concert picture. Might be released as "Heart of Gold" not Prairie Wind. He’s added some lb’s but still sounds great. A pretty heartfelt performance. Original arrangements for the older tunes. Just close your eyes and go back in time. Great mix and remix. (nothing worse than a concert picture that sounds bad) Demme puts you in the first few rows of the auditorium except for two bizarre shots that remind you "oh yea someone is filming this I’m not at the concert" I believe Neil was having brain surgery a few days after the concert. Kind of a Goodbye to friends and fans if he didn’t make it. Fortunately he’s fine. You’ll want to see this in an auditorium with a big screen and great sound like I did.

  2. Hard for me to filter out my decades-long love for this man and his music from my comments.

    As a "Concert-Movie"–and I’ve seen most of them going back to the early 1970s– it might be the best I have ever seen.

    I’m absolutely planning to see it again, maybe more than once. Demme’s touch allowing the musicians/the music/the locale to tell the stories was masterful; I felt the editing might have been technically a bit choppy but as "grit/context" it was excellent (kind of "Last Waltz" like but a bit smoother).

    But the sub-text that will get to some but not all Neil Young fans (I feel all Neil fans will flat-out absolutely love this movie): this great great man and musician is clearly reflecting on his life in his music, in his banter and in his eyes.

    The aneurysm was an unbelievable muse, both in looking back and (hopefully,gently) looking forward. He like me (I’m about his age)–and this is why I suspect the degree of connection to this film might be somewhat related to age–knows most is behind, we hope there’s still stuff ahead. This was in there somewhere in each of the film’s songs.

    The close-ups of everyone are off-putting at first and then I came to treasure the "intimacy".

    And never before have I witnessed a film’s content– the great songs that made the final cut–so consistently compatible with this awesome "old man, taking a look at (his) life", surrounded by his "friends" (those that are left), in words, music and atmosphere.

    Music lovers: don’t miss this movie. Great job by Mr. Demme!!!

  3. I am a Neil Young fan for over 25 years. I love most of his work. I hate some of it. Neil likes to experiment. He is never afraid of failure. This boils down to ‘You can’t please everybody’. I have attended about 8 of his concerts plus his previous movie ‘Rust Never Sleeps’. I took my son on his 20th birthday to the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood to see this movie. I also took my my wife, my 11 year-old daughter, and my son’s 18 year-old girlfriend. Everyone of us loved the movie. The theatre was completely silent during the entire program. The lady next to me actually clapped after several songs. It was easy to forget we were at a movie. It felt so much like a live performance, except the acoustics were better and we could see every performer. Maybe I can identify with many of the songs he sang. My son has left home and come back. My father is in the early stages of ‘Dementia’. This made the performance very personal for me. I had to remind myself that Neil was performing for millions of fans, not just myself. The movie is beautiful in its simplicity. It does not rely on sets or props or special effects. Just a bunch of very talented musicians. The lighting and camera work truly complete the mood. The day after we saw the movie, my 11 year-old daughter told me she understood the song Neil sang about his daughter. She understood the line ‘I miss you, but I won’t hold you down’. Yes, I loved this movie. I only wished I was at the Ryman during filming. Go see this movie. Take your wives, your kids, your friends, and anyone else you can think of.

  4. I’ve seen this film twice and must say that, with Heart of Gold, Jonathan Demme has created the definitive Neil Young concert – this is as good as Neil Young gets and Demme has captured him perfectly. Neil Young fans and those who are turned on to him by this film will probably want to buy the DVD when it comes out. But see it in a theater if you can – production values are extremely high (this is no amateurish production), camera work (particularly the close up camera work) is among the best I have ever seen, the editing is superb, and the content is as good as it gets for a film of this genre.

    Although I’ve been a Demme fan for years, I was lukewarm about Neil Young before seeing this film – count me as a big Neil Young fan now too. Jonathan, if you are reading this – any chance you could capture Stephen Stills one of these days?

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