He says their latest, “Neil Young Journeys,” is more like an electric bolt, with a “grinding, blinding beauty to it.”
Their 2006 film “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was a reflective, comforting chronicle of two shows Young performed at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium alongside such longtime musical comrades as Emmylou Harris, Ben Keith and Spooner Oldham.
“Journeys” is a raw, thunderous counterpart, filmed by Demme at Toronto’s Massey Hall during the closing shows of Young’s solo tour last year. Solo often implies intimate and acoustic, but Young wails away on electric guitar, harmonica, piano and organ throughout the show.
The new film played Saturday at the Slamdance Film Festival, a rival showcase to Sundance. Demme says it was a fitting place because both Slamdance and the film share something of a “bad-boy” attitude.
“‘Journeys’ is so different from ‘Heart of Gold.’ It’s like the other side of the universe,” Young, 66, said in an interview alongside Demme. “‘Heart of Gold’ was a massive production with great caretaking to present this whole image of this forgotten style of presenting music, in this great old chapel of country music. …
“This film we just made is so opposite of that. It’s just one person. The sound is completely different and the attitude of it is different. The look is different. … The sounds are kind of enveloping. You get to move way inside, whereas, ‘Heart of Gold,’ you’re way back, going, ‘Oh, it’s beautiful seeing it from the back, seeing all these beautiful people, these great musicians.’ And this one here, you’re like inside my instrument, inside the distortion of the guitar. There’s nothing in the way.”
Demme and Young seem to be on a never-ending film journey. The new movie marks the fourth film collaboration between Young and Demme, the Academy Award-winning director of “The Silence of the Lambs.”
Young earned an Oscar nomination for the title song of Demme’s 1993 AIDS drama “Philadelphia,” and in between “Heart of Gold” and “Journeys,” the two made the 2009 concert film “Neil Young Trunk Show.”
“Journeys” premiered at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival and has since been picked up for theatrical distribution by Sony Pictures Classics.
The film includes extreme close-ups of Young captured by a tiny camera mounted on his microphone. The camera was so close its lens catches globs of spit from Young as he’s singing, adding a bit of a psychedelic tinge to the images.
“It’s more distorted and funky. It’s a little bit more in your face,” Young said. “It’s like zooming in on something, losing everything that’s usually around it, and you’re just losing everything else. There’s no bass, no drums, there’s no other guitars, there’s no other voices, there’s no synthesizers, there’s no echo. There’s just this thing. It’s a big sound, because you’re right up on it. It’s like a fantastic voyage into your guitars.”
Along with songs from Young’s 2010 album “Le Noise,” ”Journeys” features such classics as “After the Gold Rush,” ”Ohio” and “Down by the River.”
Intercut between the songs in “Journeys” is a road trip Young takes to one of the Toronto shows from his northern Ontario hometown of Omemee, cruising with Demme in a 1956 Ford Crown Victoria and commenting on how the towns and landscape have changed.
“This whole world of cars and music, that’s a big chunk of Neil’s DNA. He’s all about cars and driving and music in motion,” Demme said. “I don’t think we had any discussions. It was just like, well, we’re going to Canada to shoot the concert in Toronto. Obviously, we’ll drive down there from Omemee and take a look and see what’s changed, and kind of just discover the past in the present. The same way the songs are very often kind of reflective. …
“It put a lens up to his life. He’s a medium for all of our lives. Certainly, our generation, whatever Neil’s been singing about for the last 40 years or whatever, it’s like, ‘Thank you. That’s exactly what I was feeling. You’ve put it into words and music.'”