Last year, in short order, Neil Young got news of his father’s death; got diagnosed with a potentially fatal brain aneurysm; and got on a plane to Nashville, where he wrote and recorded a whole album before going in for surgery. The album, Prairie Wind, took four days to make. Recovery from the surgery took longer, but it went well. In August, Young assembled some kindred-spirit musicians and the filmmaker Jonathan Demme in Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, the longtime home of the Grand Ole Opry, to perform his new songs, and some older ones, for two evenings before a well-wishing crowd. A few months later, he turned 60 years old.
Neil Young: Heart of Gold is what Demme took away from those two evenings, an attentive, soberly tender concert film. Certainly it is music of muted grief, mixing Young’s expressions of gratitude and lament for friends and family with reckonings of his own aging and mortality. But the beauty of the movie is in how alive it all sounds: rich and rueful and satisfying.
These concerts were Young’s first public performances of the Prairie Wind material, and by design they’re as fresh as heartland wheat fields. Simply suited, Stetsoned and companionably un-self-conscious, Young cuts an iconic figure onstage—firmly a persona but in no way a pose. With support from reliable old hands like guitarist Grant Boatwright; keyboardist Spooner Oldham; pedal-steel crackerjack Ben Keith; and singers including Emmylou Harris and his wife, Pegi, Young’s earned, easy command surely will magnetize people even a third his age with the conviction that the country-rock singer-songwriter gig will always be where it’s at. Ardent non-fans may feel bored or even tormented, but even they should appreciate the discreet avidity of Demme’s presentation.
Heart of Gold almost seems like a planned response to the ubiquity of concert films—a genre in which Demme, the director of Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense, has been influential. Here, quite clearly following Young’s example, he opts out of anything that could be called fancy and does well by simply trusting the material. The unaffectedness is arresting, and it’s an uncommon accomplishment for Demme, who was also the director of more hectoring movies like The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia (the latter’s soundtrack featured a song by Young).
Here the priority is the making of the music, as much an interplay of voices and instruments as a leisurely traffic of glances and nods and grins among the performers, whose mutual amity and understanding run deep. Because he’s got such a great array of lived-in faces to work with, Demme favors fond, shallowly focused close-ups, captured in wedges of amber-hued light by the skillful cinematographer Ellen Kuras. Not bothering with reaction shots of the audience, whose applause says enough, the movie cycles through its plainspoken imagery in felicitous cuts and gentle dissolves, and the cumulative effect is a heightened appreciation of Young and his songs.
Not that the songs are perfect; one trade-off to Prairie Wind’s rustic immediacy is its way of sometimes seeming undercooked, with spots of limp changes and penciled-in lyrics and Young’s trademark warbling falsetto here and there falling a little too flat. But it’s decent of him not to ask us to pretend otherwise for sympathy’s sake. Actually, Young’s way of not giving a damn about what’s expected from him reads as courtesy and helps inoculate his deeply felt songs against sentimentality. He prefaces a few of them with brief, circumspectly confessional spoken introductions. Of his father’s dementia, for example, Young tells the crowd, “It’s somethin’ else to see your loved ones livin’ in the moment.” Then he burrows into the new album’s title track, a minor-key groove on that very subject, well fortified by its own ache. As he sings, a grimace pulls on his face.
Demme was exactly right to name his film for a song that opens into such naked hope—“I want to live, I want to give,” Young told us—and goes on, poignantly, to wrestle with a weary acknowledgement: “but I’m gettin’ old.” “Heart of Gold” is among the older songs Young plays here, with moving simplicity.
Another is “The Old Laughing Lady,” with which the film’s coda leaves him alone on the stage, turned away from the camera and facing into the empty auditorium. It’s more a private moment than a performance, but thanks to what the musician and the filmmaker have worked out between them, watching it feels like a privilege instead of an intrusion.