Neil Young: Heart Of Gold
Neil Young is not a pretty man. Schlubby at the best of times—heartening to those who plan on looking like they just rolled out bed well into their mid-50s—age is catching up with him. So it’s hard to imagine anyone but a hard-core fan having much interest in Jonathan Demme’s Heart of Gold, a concert movie that spends almost all of its 103 minutes beatifically focused on Young’s jowls, squinting gaze, and not particularly toothsome sidemen. Demme at least knows enough to give ample screen time to the supernaturally beautiful Emmylou Harris.
It’s also hard to imagine anyone but a hard-core fan being interested, because the bulk of Gold is Young playing the entirety of his 2005 lite-country comeback album, Prairie Wind. Though Young suffered a brain aneurysm during its recording, Prairie is focused, unlike Young’s inconsistent career since the 1980s. It’s the kind of record that makes aging rock critics root for their aging heroes. Sitting through it on screen if you’ve never heard it before, though, is a bit of a slog.
Demme, of course, also made Talking Heads’ 1984 Stop Making Sense, one of the great concert films of all time. And here, too, he excises excitement-generating crowd-reaction shots of Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. But Young offers no solo performances with boom box, big-suited antics, or upbeat funk to compensate. You do get two particularly ugly painted backdrops that awkwardly unfurl behind the band. If you get off on slow fades and warmly lit profiles of Col. Sanders look-alike guitar players, this is the concert flick for you.
Early on in an interview segment, Young says he’s always abjured studio musicians, preferring to surround himself with pals who like to play. But the music of Heart of Gold is slick as pomade, featuring—deep breath—dobro, pedal steel, organ, piano, three-part female harmonies, fiddles, and a full gospel choir. This is far from the ragged glory of Crazy Horse in its prime, and for a guy who practically invented the 20-minute, one-note feedback guitar solo, Young’s decision to play acoustic throughout is a bit of a bummer.
The assembled audience that day last August in Nashville, and the prospective audience for this movie, doesn’t want bone-rattling, wall-of-noise performances of “Like a Hurricane.” They want the sun-baked, stoned country-rock of After the Gold Rush and Harvest that made Young a superstar. And in the final third, when Young and friends run through a string of classics, it’s clear that Young’s still got it, at least when the songs are indelible. And if you’re the kind of fan who easily forgives an old man’s empty-nest indulgences, you already know whether or not you want to see this movie.