Neil Young Life (2011) dir. Jonathan Demme
Starring Neil Young
By Greg Klymkiw
On the other side of Winnipeg
Neil and The Squires played the Zone
But then he went to play
For awhile in Thunder Bay
He never looked back and he’s never coming home
-Randy Bachmann "Prairie Town"
Ultimately, Neil Young belongs to the world, but it's the city of Winnipeg that allows Him to be shared.
Toronto, the pathetic, self-absorbed self-proclaimed centre of the universe tries to claim everything as their own. Yes, Neil was born in Toronto, the City of (to coin a phrase from the late, great Canadian literary giant Scott Symons) Smugly Fucklings, but His earliest, most formative years were spent on the prairies and in the deep bush territory of Northern Ontario.
Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, but He will always be Jesus of Nazareth.
From the North Ontario town of Omemee, Neil and his Mom eventually moved to The 'Peg where they lived in Fort Rouge (a south-end enclave for those of the working class). He played numerous gigs at the immortal Kelvin High School and this is where he formed his first major group The Squires.
For me, and those of my ilk, Our Lord will always be Neil Young of Winnipeg.
It is then, with heavy heart I report that His latest concert film, Neil Young Life was shot at Toronto's Massey Hall.
My Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?
"Because, My son, much as Winnipeg will always be My spiritual home, it is now a cesspool that has nary a single venue worthy of My Holy Voice and Hallowed Words."
Sad, but true. Massey Hall in Toronto is an astounding venue for Neil Young. It is replete with history, whilst most of Winnipeg's history has been systematically decimated. All Winnipeg has these days is a grotesque downtown arena built on the demolished ruins of a historic department store called Eaton's - this after the historic Winnipeg Arena, the original home to Canada's National hockey team, the Winnipeg Maroons and the glorious Winnipeg Jets in the lamented World Hockey Association, was levelled. Now, all that remains is an acoustically perfect, but cold and history bereft venue bearing the name of the Manitoba Telephone System.
An arena named after a telephone company is no place to capture Our Lord on celluloid.
And ultimately, the raison d'etre of Jonathan Demme's latest cinematic record of a great live performance is seeing Neil Young in concert like you could never see him live in ANY venue - up close and personal, through the lens of a great artist.
Neil Young Life features some of the most astounding footage of the hallowed rock legend you will ever see committed to film.
Neil is admittedly in great form here, but the star of the movie is definitely director Jonathan Demme. Only one filmmaker has ever been able to capture live performance as brilliantly as Demme - Martin Scorsese. But not even Marty has delivered as MANY great live performance documentaries as Demme. Will anyone ever forget their first screening of The Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense? This was truly one of the most exciting and visually gorgeous concert films imaginable (save, perhaps, for Scorsese's The Last Waltz). Demme managed to outdo even himself with the astounding Swimming To Cambodia wherein he captured the genius of the late Spaulding Gray delivering one of his outstanding monologues.
Demme's crowning glory, however, must surely be the trilogy of Our Lord's concert films Neil Young Heart of Gold, Neil Young Trunk Show and now Neil Young Life.
The best of the three is still Heart of Gold - it had the most clearly defined aesthetic approach of the three films, but there are plenty stunning moments in Life; a heartbreaking "Down By the River", numerous great renderings of material off His "Le Noise" album and finally, a truly powerful sequence in honour of those slain during the Kent State Massacre.
The sequence begins with Neil driving around his old hometown of Omemee and admitting that the only time he listens to music these days is when he is driving in cars - this statement leads into the sweetest cut imaginable as Neil launches into one of the most soulful renderings of "Ohio" I have ever experienced. Neil is in exquisite form here - his passion and intensity is pitched so acutely that one could close one's eyes and just listen and be forced to open them to allow a flood of tears to pour out.
What pushes us over the top emotionally during this sequence is the beautifully edited newsreel footage of the Kent State Massacre, a roll call of those innocent young people murdered by the National Guard and finally, a collage of the victims' photos accompanied by their dates of birth and death - all the more gut wrenching as the photographs reveal such brightness and promise in the eyes of those who were slaughtered like pigs by their own government - and for no reason.
If this were the only sequence worth watching in the film, then the entire picture would still be worth seeing. In fact, while Neil Young Life - as a film - falls a bit short of Heart of Gold, the Kent State sequence renders some of the entire trilogy's greatest moments.
What the movie is lacking is not really its fault since the whole approach is to meant to be All-Neil-All-The-Time, but the fact remains, one misses Neil's interaction with the guest artists accompanying Him during Heart of Gold and that of His band in the second picture. Life is, however, a bit more successful than Trunk Show, which occasionally felt too distanced and impersonal.
At the end of the day, all three films are an important record of a Man who might well be the mightiest musical bard in all contemporary music. An ideal situation - which I plan to do as soon as I can - is to watch all three pictures back to back and preferably in one marathon sitting.
I'm salivating at the prospect of doing so.
One technique I love in Life are the amazing extreme close-ups - the camera straight on Young's lower jowls and mouth whilst the camera remains fixed on Our Lord emoting with a simple in and out bob of His head.
And for those of us who care, there are numerous shots of Neil Young wearing a Manitoba Moose hat.
It sure warmed my cockles.