Neil Young has not only been one of our most talented songwriters and performers over the past four decades, but he is arguably the foremost among his music colleagues in his appreciation of motion pictures.
Either by directing himself under the same of Bernard Shakey or doing films in collaboration with Jonathan Demme or Jim Jarmusch, Young has produced a steady flow of concert films that go beyond the usual exercises in that genre. Many display his social and political concerns such as his “CSNY/Déjà Vu” (2008), which chronicled his cross-country tour with Crosby, Stills and Nash against the backdrop of the Iraq war.
“Neil Young Journeys,” joining forces again with director Demme, is a mellower and reflective affair, one aimed at hardcore fans and less concerned with any personal causes. It debuted at the film festival in his native Toronto, then played in Los Angeles at the LA Film Fest prior to its opening June 29.
The occasion is the final play date of his 2011 solo tour for the “Le Noise” album at Toronto’s Massey Hall. Demme jams himself and a camera inside an ancient Ford Crown Victoria as Young journeys from his hometown of Omemee, Ontario, through scenes of his youth on the way to that night’s venue.
As Neil follows brother Bob in another car, he reminiscences about his family and growing up in the countryside, a totally unremarkable one-sided conversation other than the fact it’s Neil Young doing the talking.
Then he arrives at Massey Hall and the film gives you a flavor of this intimate, laid-back concert tour. He ambles out on a darkened stage filled with the various instruments he’ll use during the evening along with massive speakers and amps. He is extraordinarily comfortable on stage, downright folksy even — a scruffy, unshaven figure wearing a battered and torn straw hat and a white jacket over black T-shirt and blue jeans.
The song list is from the 2010 “Le Noise” LP interspersed with several classic songs going back to the early ’70s. Only one sequence recalls his political activism. As he sings “Ohio,” about the 1970 National Guard killings of four young people at Kent State, Demme cuts in archival footage from that tragedy, which is virtually the only old footage used throughout the concert film.
The stage lighting doesn’t show the singer/songwriter to his best advantage. And for some reason Demme twice includes extended extreme close-ups of Young’s face, an unflattering view that should best be left to his dentist.
All in all, “Neil Young Journeys” feels skimpy, something thrown out to his fans because it’s been a few years since his last concert film but without any overriding theme or purpose. It’s always nice to hear Young sing his songs again but that’s what iPods are for. This time the visual presentation is too lackluster to measure up to his superb ballads.
Opens: June 29 (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production companies: Shakey Pictures/Clinica Estetico in association with SalesForce Films
Director: Jonathan Demme
Producers: Jonathan Demme, Elliot Rabinowitz
Executive producers: Marc Benioff, Bernard Shakey
Director of photography: Declan Quinn
Additional photography: Charles Libin, Adam CK Vollick
Music: Neil Young
Editor: Glenn Allen
PG rating, 87 minutes