Neil Young: Heart of Gold is almost as perfect as any concert film can be. With recent films such as The Truth About Charlie (based on Charade) and a remake of The Manchurian Candidate, Heart of Gold director Jonathan Demme had been teetering on the edge of irrelevance for awhile. Neil Young: Heart of Gold reminds us once again of Demme’s directing skills and in this age of market-driven pop stars, Young’s tremendous talents as a musician, singer, songwriter, and storyteller.
In March of 2005, the then-59-year-old Young was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm, which was successfully removed at a New York hospital. Between the diagnosis and the operation, Neil went to Nashville studio with some of the best musicians around and produced the bulk of the songs that would become his 2005 album, Prairie Wind.
Young Debuted Prairie Wind in two shows at Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry. Demme filmed both shows. The result is a wonderfully cohesive live performance.
Demme used eight cameras with long-range lenses and one steady cam to shoot the show. The goal was to shoot what would be Neil’s dream concert. Because Young doesn’t like cameras in his face while he’s performing, the band rehearsed with the steady cam. That way, Neil and the musicians were prepared each time the camera came across the stage. Unlike most concert documentaries produced today, Neil Young: Heart of Gold has no quick cuts; the camera holds the shots squarely on Neil and the other band members. The audience is never seen; they are only heard applauding after each song. Given the very personal nature of the songs in the concert, the cameras total focus on Neil and the band members feels revelatory.
There are three back-up singers (including Young’s wife, Pegi and the legendary Emmylou Harris), three horn players, an incredible string section, a gospel choir, and the Fisk University Jubilee Singers. However, it is Young’s band of talented musicians who really keep things at a tremendously high level. All of these great musicians seem to be feeding off of each other, making it all look so effortless.
Young himself is playing his 1941 Martin D28 — a guitar that once belonged to Hank Williams, who used to play it in the Ryman Auditorium. (“I’m glad to see it back here,” the singer says, lifting a hand toward heaven.) He seems relaxed and satisfied, but as he sings his way through haunting new songs like “When God Made Me” and, especially, “Falling Off the Face of Earth,” you know he’s experienced some things recently that have left a permanent mark.
He does a number of older songs, too (“I Am a Child,” “Harvest Moon,” a cover of Ian and Sylvia’s “Four Strong Winds”), and they fit right in with the set’s sometimes bleak tone — particularly, a solo, somber reading of “The Needle and the Damage Done.” Despite the tough subject matter, the music is infused with a spirit that’s unmistakably born from the roots of rock and roll.
The two-disc Special Collectors Edition DVD of Neil Young: Heart of Gold is crammed with special features. The second disc has a bonus song, “He Was the King,” rehearsal diaries – narrated by director Jonathan Demme, 6 in-depth featurettes: “Fellow Travelers,” “Cruising With Neil,” “These Old Guitars,” “Cruising With the Players,” “Finishing Touches” and “Warming Up With Neil and the Jubilee Singers.” The disc also includes Neil Young’s performance on a 1971 episode of The Johnny Cash Show.
Heart of Gold is one of the best concert films I’ve seen in a long time. There is no big light show or massive stage props; it’s just Neil and his band singing and playing well crafted songs about love, loss and longing, and doing it with expert precision.
For more information on Neil Young: Heart of Gold go to the films official site and be sure to check out this E-card to preview video from the DVD.