The third Demme doc involving Neil Young in as many years, NEIL YOUNG JOURNEYS is perhaps the most slight in terms of actually “documentary” form. We see Neil (and his brother, leading the way in a vintage Cadillac) traipsing through his home town of Omemee, Ontario, languidly trolling the places where he spent his early youth. They visit the school named after his (celebrated sports writer) father, and in mere minutes have covered the entirety of the town.
Ostensibly, this is another “journey through the past” from Neil, but this time there’s little to visit. When they approach an overgrown field in the outskirts of Pickering, a place that once held the homestead of the Young’s, it all seems to be more than a bit silly. As he leaves this final location, he head down Highway 7, weasels down to the 401, takes the Yonge street exit (one day it may yet be re-spelled to celebrate NY), finally pulling into actual home in the Toronto area, Massey Hall.
This is the heart of the concert film, a recording of the LE NOISE solo performances that Neil gave earlier this year at this hallowed hal. Daniel Lanois’ production on the album captured Neil’s acoustic in a split fashion, using multiple mics and pickups to craft a wide spectrum guitar sound. The show uses this sound style to provide both classic and contemporary songs with a wash of this style – throbbing bottom end, slightly distorted midrange, and a clear high end that creates a kind of orchestra out of the single, monophonic instrument.
LE NOISE is a fine album, and these latest songs sit in well with some numbers that he first performed at Massey some 40 years earlier. There’s a grit to the guitar, but Neil’s voice is still strong and shrill as ever, and he captivates his audience throughout the show. Speaking of the Massey audience, we never see them on screen, never really have a pull back to situate his stage with the crowd that’s watching him – the focus is entirely on the performance, and as a historical record of this show it’s finely crafted. The sound recording is exemplary, and we were treated at the Princess of Wales show to a modified sound playback setup, using similar equipment as used at the Massey gig itself. Broadcast from the 96khz recordings (celebrated during the Q&A as a first for a feature film), the sound was powerful and engaging. The cracks and hums from the bank of small tube amps behind Neil could be clearly heard, and the powerful bass was enough to ruffle my shirt collar.
Demme gets a bit cute with some of the shots, including use of an HD pencil camera mounted on the mic stand. When a drop of spittle occurs midway through a track we’re granted a small moment of psychedelia, watching the inadvertent hork droplet reflect the lights in a shimmering fashion. Seeing a misframed, ultra closeup of NY’s mouth is indeed an intimate way of seeing the performance, but it does get a bit precious after a while.
While NEIL YOUNG JOURNEYS isn’t really engaging as a documentary, and its filming technique occasionally gets in the way of providing a clear record of the concert, it’s still well worth a viewing for any fan of NY’s music. Years now after the aneurism that almost took his life, his music remains as powerful and vital as it has been in decades, and the film does an admirable job of capturing this moment in his career.