"Neil Young Journeys" is the third concert film Jonathan Demme has made with Neil Young in the last six years. It's the first time, though, that Demme and Young approached a performance film as a scripted affair.
"The show is like a play," Young says. "It's a one-man, one-act play. It's not like a concert where I would be spinning around doing whatever I wanted to do. Everything about this show was planned out like a play usually is. I knew what songs I was going to do. I knew where I would be walking, what instruments I would be playing, when they were going to come out and adjust the amplifier and bring out different guitars. I knew when I was going to climb the stairs and go up onto the organ."
Demme filmed the final two performances of Young's 2011 solo tour supporting the 2010 album "Le Noise" for "Journeys" at Toronto's Massey Hall. The lone studio record in Young's oeuvre to feature only his voice and guitar, the "Le Noise" set lists comprised the eight songs from the Daniel Lanois-produced album, a couple of unreleased tracks and such classics as "Ohio" and "Down by the River" for a total of 16 or 17 songs nightly.
Demme saw the show before it made its way to Toronto and predicted a cinematic challenge ahead. Without a band on hand, he says, "we didn't have the cornerstone that has worked historically. The good news was that now we had Neil undistracted by any other instruments, relating only to the stories he was telling. It permitted him to immerse himself in the character of these songs in a way that couldn't be possible if you're also hearing other people play."
Sony Pictures Classics will release "Neil Young Journeys" theatrically on June 29 after it makes one last festival stop June 18-19 at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
The relationship between Demme and Young began 20 years ago when Young penned the pensive ballad "Philadelphia" for Demme's film of the same name.
Young shot the 1978 concert movie "Rust Never Sleeps" under his pseudonym Bernard Shakey and handed over the director role to Jim Jarmusch for 1997's "Year of the Horse" before Demme and Young came together on "Heart of Gold." Shot at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium with a full band and a repertoire of early hits and new songs from "Prairie Wind" (2005), "Heart of Gold" had a small theatrical release in February 2006 before a DVD release in June of that year. Demme shot "Neil Young Trunk Show" at Philadelphia's Tower Theater during the "Chrome Dreams II" tour in 2007; it played festivals in 2009 and 2010 before a short theatrical run, but hasn't been released on DVD.
The new film received its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September, an appropriate beginning for a movie that started strictly as a concert chronicle and was transformed-to borrow a Young lyric-by a journey through the past.
"One thing we experimented with was taking a road trip to this little town in north Ontario to see if that might provide us with something," Demme says. "It provided us with a whole other story line that would make this different from the other two films and all other performance films, from what I've seen."
Young's brother Bob took the lead on the tour in a 1991 Cadillac Brougham D'Elegance while Neil followed in a 1956 Ford Crown Victoria. "My brother was the one who decided where we were going to go and how fast we were going to go and where to stop," Young says, noting that his only control going in was the performance itself.
Once they had footage of the car tour, Demme was able to assemble a story about Young's youth to go hand in glove with "Le Noise's" songs about love, memories and change. Rather than chronicle the concert as played, Demme moved the order of songs "to suit our emotional journey," placing "Hitchhiker" in the penultimate slot so that the film has a centerpiece much like "No Hidden Path" in "Trunk Show."
"Neil Young Journeys" arrives only a month after the release of "Americana," Young's first album with Crazy Horse in nine years, which bows this week at No. 4 on the Billboard 200. After playing Outside Lands in August, the band begins a tour on Oct. 3 in Ontario that runs through Dec. 4. The day before the tour starts, Penguin Group imprint Blue Rider Press will publish Young's book "Waging Heavy Peace," which he has said is more like a diary than a memoir. Young and Crazy Horse also have another album nearly wrapped up that may come out this year.
"It's kind of a blitz," Young says. "But it's better to get [projects] out rather than hold onto them because [you tend] to hold onto them for too long."••••