Neil Young's 2011 tour, which included a stop at Shea's Performing Arts Center in Buffalo, was a solo affair. The iconic Canadian singer/songwriter looked back over his storied career, and mixed well-known favorites with then-new songs from his just-released "Le Noise" album.
You could've heard a pin drop in the hall, so deep was the spell Young was weaving, with the help of only a few guitars, keyboards, and his own achingly fragile but authoritative voice.
Young would conclude that 2011 tour with a pair of shows in Toronto's equally iconic Massey Hall. Young's old friend and frequent collaborator, the director Jonathan Demme, was on hand to capture these mesmerizingly intimate performances.
Happily, rather than simply offering the complete concert as a "performance documentary," Demme decided to reach for more in "Neil Young Journeys," a film that, like the tour it celebrates, finds Young looking back at the same time he is asserting himself in the present.
The film opens with Young behind the wheel of his (completely awesome!) 1958 Crown Victoria, as he follows his brother Bob - "That's him in that old Cadillac up ahead" - through the streets of Omemee, Ont., the small town where he grew up. Fans of Young already know that he is the king of the sarcastic one-liner, unfailingly delivered with an impish grin. We get a bunch of these, including tales of the young Young blowing up a turtle by shoving a firecracker up its butt - "My environmental roots don't run that deep, I guess," he laughs - and eating pieces of blacktop after an older kid convinced him that it "starts out tasting bitter, but ends up tasting like chocolate." ("That was the beginning of my intimate relationship with cars," Young smirks.)
Demme - whose resume includes "The Silence of the Lambs," "Philadelphia," and the Talking Heads film "Stop Making Sense," as well as a pair of previous collaborations with Young, "Heart of Gold," (2006) and "Trunk Show" (2009) - makes the most of this material, masterfully juxtaposing it with footage from the Massey Hall shows.
The result is often riveting, as the folksy charm of Young's behind-the-wheel reminiscences is contrasted against the singular passion and intensity of his performances.
Particularly effective is a segment in which Young describes his tendency to do most of his listening in the car - "I don't give a [expletive] if it's a tiny little speaker or not, I can tell if I like it when I'm listening in the car," he says - just before Demme cuts away to a Massey Hall solo performance of the uncompromising "Ohio." Historical footage of the shameful day in 1970 when Ohio National Guardsmen fired on American citizens to quell a protest at Kent State University, killing four students (all between the ages of 18 and 21) and wounding nine is interwoven with close-ups of Young, eyes closed tight, body shaking with impassioned rage even as he sings the song 40 years later.
In this performance is so much of what we need to know about Neil Young. The man named one of his many classics with Crazy Horse "Ragged Glory," and that title goes a long way toward explaining his continued appeal after nearly 50 years in the public eye. Young, who was 66 at the time of filming, still displays the childlike fascination with music that most "lifer" musicians end up sacrificing over time to the refinement of technique. His guitar playing is rough but right, his singing far from virtuosic, but so fitting for the material that it is impossible to imagine anyone else inhabiting these songs with as much power.
There are Young classics galore during the film's expanse, and all of them connect - that Young can perform tunes like "Down by the River," "After the Gold Rush," and "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" with such shocking conviction is a testament to his continued significance as a performing artist. Some of the newer material - the piano-based ballad "Leia," "Peaceful Valley Boulevard" - fares a bit less well by comparison, mostly because Young occasionally resorts to clichéd rhyme-schemes that rarely showed up in his earlier work. That said, these tunes are still compelling, so pretense-free is their delivery.
Love Neil Young? "Journeys" is one of the most moving film portraits of the many Young documentaries extant, and is aimed straight for your heart. Perhaps more significantly, even if you don't care for his music, you'll be hard-pressed to deny Young's charm, and Demme's skill at shining a light upon it.