Jonathan Demme’s fiction movies may not always score, but the director certainly knows how to dish up live concert films. And while singer-songwriter Neil Young came a-cropper with last year’s pretentious, dreary “Greendale,” he’s still capable of penning affecting songs and putting on a great show. In “Heart of Gold,” the two men play to their strengths, joining forces to film a performance by Young and his hand-picked collaborators at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium in August, 2005 that spotlights his newest album, “Prairie Wind.” The result is nearly two hours long, but the material’s so good, and it’s captured on celluloid so deftly, that the time seems to fly by. This joins the ranks of really special concert films.
The layout of the film is as simple as could be. After some preliminary observations by members of Young’s onstage band and crew (which, as edited, provide the needed background and context), the picture moves to the stage, where Young delivers song after song, the new ones mostly centered on his boyhood memories and the experience of growing up in a rural environment but interspersed with numbers from his earlier albums (as well as one by Ian Tyson, which has special meaning for him), in a sort of overview of his life. (He had recently been diagnosed with a brain aneurism, wrote the new material while awaiting surgery and then gave the concerts after it.) Though Young delivers occasional comments before some of the songs (his comments on Hank Williams, whose guitar he’s using, are especially incisive), the film mostly segues from number to number–many of them spotlighting members of Young’s band–with elegant simplicity, while within each, the camera moves, zooms and lingers to accentuate exactly the right moments. Rarely has Demme’s touch been surer, and in cameraman Ellen Kuras and editor Andy Keir he has–just as Young does onstage–the most sensitive of accompanyists. The film closes with a long final-credits sequence, during which Young, alone on the stage, sings one last number, quietly closes up his guitar in its case, and leaves.
The result is a triumph for both Young and Demme. It captures the very different but equally impressive artistry of the singer as well as the director’s “Stop Making Sense” did that of the Talking Heads in 1984. And anyone familiar with how great that picture is will know what that means. Whether you’re a fan of Neil Young or not, don’t miss “Heart of Gold.”