REVIEW: A Great Canadian Artist Reveals Some Secrets -- Including Why He Once Ate Tar -- in Neil Young Journeys
Even Neil Young couldn’t resist. “This is a town in north Ontario,” he says at the beginning of Neil Young Journeys, Jonathan Demme’s uneven, engrossing combination of road-trip documentary and concert film. Journeys opens with Young in his hometown of Omemee, which alert Ontarians might note is not actually all that far north. It’s less than two hours from Toronto by car, which is how Young and Demme travel there, in a stately 1956 Ford Crown Victoria, for a gig at the city’s famed Massey Hall.
He’s one of those legends Americans tend to assume emerged from one of their forbidding landscapes, or pockets in time. In the decades since he went from busking for change on Toronto’s streets to playing folk rock with Buffalo Springfield in the 1960s, Neil Young has become something of a Rosetta Stone across several worlds, including the Canadian-American axis.
A number of genres and eras of music can be traced through his career, and many of his songs — most famously, perhaps, “Ohio” — document and respond to the times with vigor and alarm. He sang about Elvis and Johnny Rotten in “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” the song Kurt Cobain quoted 15 years later in his suicide note. Around that time some friends and I made a two-hour drive of our own, to the enormous outdoor venue where Soundgarden and Pearl Jam were opening for Young. For us the latter third of the bill was a puzzle; why were our favorites ceding to this aging folky? Then Young shuffled out and rocked our worlds.
Massey Hall is more intimate — under 3,000 seats — and at 65, as Demme emphasizes with his clamp-like focus on the performer, Young can still smash it up. Most of the film alternates between brief vignettes of a congenial Young at home and on the road and Young on stage, the impenetrable ax-man with that warbly, mournful, loon call of a voice. After ninety minutes of being so up-close and personal that for long stretches we're looking directly up Young’s nose (a camera was attached to his mic stand, to dubious effect), the shell of his enigma shows barely a scratch. In Omemee he points out the school named after his father (writer Scott Young) and the home of the boy who persuaded him to eat tar (it’s like chocolate!). The family’s land in Pickering is derelict these days, but Young and his brother (who leads the caravan) remember how and where things used to be.
The solo concert looks back as well, alternating between old glories and Young’s ever prolific present — his latest album, Americana, which reunites him with longtime collaborators Crazy Horse, was released earlier this month. The Journeys show, which took place last May, is a blend of songs from his 2010 album, Le Noise, and 1970s gems. At times the combination of the newer stuff and Demme’s static presentation sets the mind a-wanderin’; the mic-cam, for instance, seems like part of a struggle to hold our attention. Even less successful is the intrusion, during “Ohio,” of news footage and big red lettering announcing the events of that day at Kent State University and the names of the victims. It feels unnecessary to crowd that information into a song whose power is increasingly derived from the cumulative reminder, made across decades now, of what was lost; he’s never stopped singing that refrain.
The audience is never seen and only faintly heard. This puts a lot of visual pressure on a very inward performer. Young is a beast onstage, to be sure — he seems to re-grow an appendix for each song, so that it can be removed, without anesthetic, before our eyes — but it's a centrifugal charisma. The more intimate the song (in “Love and War” he confesses to betraying a partner and hitting “a bad chord,” presumably with Living with War, his controversial post-9/11 album; in “Hitchhiker” a laundry list of drugs taken and paranoias suffered is recited), the further away he seems — and the more we long for another minute with that other Young, the one who’ll admit to shoving firecrackers up a turtle’s back end when he was a boy.
There’s no way to resolve a mystique like Young’s, as Demme seems to be discovering. Journeys is his third Young documentary in the last six years. Partly that has to do with the preservation of his talent: If all the new songs aren’t killers, all the old one weren’t either, and he remains a remarkably strong and dedicated musician. I think the other part has to do with the more abstract idea that while he's often treated as an elder statesman — we’ve tried to make him one, “godfather of grunge” being one label — his legacy is more that of an elusive fellow traveler, one who has been telling our stories all along. Demme saved “Helpless” for the credits, where it played over images of small-town Ontario. I cried like a baby.