It’s easy to write a review of a movie like Jonathan Demme’s “Heart of Gold,” a concert film of Neil Young’s 2-night performance at the Ryman Auditorium in 2005. If you’re a Neil Young fan, the movie is essential viewing. If you’re not a Neil Young fan, then this probably won’t convince you to become one, but it’s a good place to start trying.
It was at these shows that Young performed the world premiere of “Prairie Wind,” which in all likelihood was his best album of the recently-finished decade. As any Neil Young fan knows, there are really two Neil Youngs – the punk Godfather who makes loud, electric albums with Crazy Horse, and the softer, perhaps kinder Neil Young, who records mostly acoustic tunes with a band that at times shifts in personnel, but that has been remarkably stable for the past three (now almost four) decades. Both Neils have created albums that stand as milestones of rock history –“Tonight’s the Night,” “Ragged Glory,” and “Sleeps With Angels” in the former category; “Comes A Time” and “Harvest Moon” in the latter. Sometimes, in such classics as “After the Gold Rush,” “Rust Never Sleeps,” and “Freedom,” you get a little taste of both Neils.
In “Heart of Gold,” you see and hear the softer Neil, which is appropriate given the venue, but also appropriate because the movie is clearly intended be a summing up of what has been in the past as much as a renewal of what is still to come. In a sense, Young has become the “Old Man” that he sang about nearly forty years ago, but as this music proves, there is still a lot of life in the old codger yet. He and the band obviously treated these shows as a special occasion; everyone is dressed up in their finest Nashville threads, and Young is uncharacteristically talkative (I saw him play with Crazy Horse in 1996, and I don’t think he said two words the entire evening). The performances are beautifully rendered, and the sound quality is absolutely amazing.
Demme, who directed “Stop Making Sense” with Talking Heads in 1984, approaches the material a bit differently here. Unlike the previous film, “Heart of Gold” leads off with a series of short interviews, filmed while Neil and the members of the band are driving to the auditorium. It provides the viewer with a sense of the history between Young and these musicians, and it also sets up an emotional payoff that enhances the whole viewing experience.
And, suffice to say, the music is glorious. It has inspired me to give “Prairie Wind” another listen – I remember admiring it a great deal upon its release, but setting it aside shortly afterward. But watching Neil talk about these songs, and the band perform them exquisitely, lends them a life that goes well beyond what I originally heard on the CD. And seeing Emmylou Harris in a backup role, sometimes on guitar but mostly just providing background vocals (along with, among others, Pegi Young, Neil’s wife) brings with it an enormous emotional impact.
In fact, there are three huge emotional payoffs in the film. One occurs right before Neil sings “Comes A Time,” and talks about recording the song with Nicolette Larson, who died well before her time. The second comes when he plays a song using one of Hank Williams’ old guitars, and the third comes during “Harvest Moon,” when he makes eye contact with Pegi as he sings the following verse:
Because I'm still in love with you
I want to see you dance again
Because I'm still in love with you
On this harvest moon.
It’s a wonderful moment, and a triumphant one as well.
By now, you’ve probably figured out that I am a Neil Young fan. And if you’re like me, by all means you need to see “Heart of Gold.” You won’t be disappointed.