Neil Young is no longer young. He’s 60 years old and plagued by the effects of both illnesses from childhood and decades of drugs, alcohol and general hard living. He’s jowly, and what hair he has left is wispy and sticks out from underneath his cowboy hat like unruly cow tails. Yes, he’s as gorgeous as ever.
The legendary guitarist with the angelic tenor has recorded more than 500 songs — rock, folk, country, you name it. For more than 40 years, he’s played with the best: Buffalo Springfield, Crosby Stills, Nash and Young, Crazy Horse, etc. He’s soloed, soared, bombed out and re-created himself so many times that only die-hard fans can keep count.
On two nights last year, Young performed his Wild Prairie concert at Nashville’s acoustically magnificent Ryman Auditorium. Joining him was a stageful of his favorite musicians, including songwriter/keyboardist Spooner Oldham, whom Grey Eagle fans love. Young’s friend Jonathan Demme, director of feature films (The Silence of the Lambs), concert films (Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense) and music videos (Bruce Springsteen and The Pretenders, among others), combined the two performances into one seamless, utterly timeless musical film. There are many critics who consider Neil Young: Heart of Gold to be one of the best concert films ever made. I agree.
For some concert films, Woodstock, let’s say, the audience is as much a part of the concert as the performers. But after nearly four decades of jumping teenagers in halter-tops and mind-boggling quick cuts with blinding stage-light flares, those films that give equal billing to the audience have become really boring. Many fans want to scream, “Forget the audience already and give us the performers.” Neil Young: Heart of Gold does just that. It’s exciting because it focuses on the musicians and the unabashed joy they feel while creating music. With no gimmickry, the power of one man and his music comes through pure and undiluted. The result is a nearly ecstatic and truly unforgettable film.
In the wake of a brain aneurysm and the death of his beloved father, Young faced his mortality with an outpouring of soul-searing songs that were the core of his 2005 album Prairie Wind. (Two of his three children were born with cerebral palsy, so he’d been no stranger to the human body’s frailty.) The title song is a tribute to his father before dementia “took away his head.” In a duet with Emmylou Harris (lovely in her unapologetic snow-white hair), This Old Guitar remembers Hank Williams Sr. In I’m Here for You, Young sings a love song to his college-age daughter that every aching empty-nester can identify with.
In the second part of the concert, Young plays some of his earlier, classic songs. Harvest Moon, one of the most famous, is sung like a lusty lullaby. Young adds to the enjoyment of the songs with brief intros, such as his story of the day he took possession of his northern California ranch. The elderly caretaker wondered how someone as young as he was — 24 at the time, he called himself “a rich hippie” — could afford such a huge spread. Young wrote Old Man for him. “Old man, look at my life, I’m a lot like you were.”
Heart of Gold, from Young’s 1972 album Harvest was written when he was only 26. Maybe now it’s found its fullest meaning. “I want to live, I want to give … I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold … and I’m getting old.” Rated PG for some drug-related lyrics.
– reviewed by Marcianne Miller