In the world of folk music, Bob Dylan is frequently crowned as the artist who has made the biggest impact on the genre. Sure, Bob may have gotten Ringo high for the first time, subsequently bringing us “Rubber Soul,” and he freaked out a pile of feedback deprived hippies when he went electric, but what does that all add up to? Neil Young is twice the songwriter Dylan has ever been and he has remained relevant in every decade in which he has made music, something Bob certainly cannot say. Neil Young is anything but a flash in the pan.
Canada’s most valuable export is the subject of director Jonathan Demme’s concert film “Neil Young: Heart of Gold.” The show staged over two nights at Nashville’s Ryman Theater, former home to the Grand Ole Opry, displays Young’s talent and his equally gifted and kind soul. It proves Young is a rare and undeniable force in music both contemporary and past, “Heart of Gold” is a genuine treat for his fans and critics alike.
Jonathan Demme’s (“Philadelphia,” “Silence of the Lambs”) presence in “Heart of Gold” is subtle. Young is an intense and captivating subject and his presence alone is the “Heart” of the film. The hand of the director is most noticeable in the choice of when to show Neil in extreme close-up and when to step back and show him as the leader of an extraordinary group of musicians, some of whom have performed with Young on and off for three decades. Martin Scorcese’s “The Last Waltz” is often heralded as THE concert film and this movie does not pose a threat to the title, however it is the best front row seat you’ll never have.
Intimate is a word that when used to describe an artist in the act of performing is typically positive. It certainly is here, but the level of detail Demme has achieved by taking the audience literally right in Young’s face, may be a bit much for some. The movement of Young’s graying eyebrows, the splay of harmonica spittle and a glisten from wispy rogue hairs are all frequently part of this intimate look at live performance. Watching fingers, lips and eyes as they clamor to do their part for each song is the great drama of this nuts and bolts portrayal. The songs from Young’s new album “Prairie Wind,” recorded just prior to surgery for a brain aneurysm, would be trite and tiresome in the hands of any garden variety bluegrass or folk act. It is a testament to Young’s sincerity and authority that new material can swing so much weight alongside classics like “The Needle and the Damage Done” and “Old Man.”
The musical highlights of “Heart of Gold” include an exceptional version of “Harvest Moon,” the title track from the album of the same name from 1992, featuring the backing vocals of country legend Emmylou Harris. You know you’ve done a few things right when Emmylou Harris is one of your back-up singers. Notable new songs from the “Prairie Wind” album include “When God Made Me” and “Falling Off the Face of the Earth.”
“Heart of Gold” is not likely to change someone’s mind who really just doesn’t get Neil Young. For the rest of us, “Heart of Gold” works wonderfully as a reminder of Young’s master status or as an introduction to one of music’s true treasures. Neil Young has been a brilliant songwriter, a powerful voice in infamous times of change and a guitar hero (just ask J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. who was rattling the walls like a hovering spacecraft in the theater right next door to the one screening “Heart of Gold” last night). Those of us who love Neil Young are still excited to see what he will do next. What do you think Dylan’s gonna do next?