Neil Young Trunk ShowReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/19/10 16:00:00
Over the years, rock concert films have tended to fall into one of two camps--they are either chronicles of a specific musical event or they are video jukeboxes with little more on their mind than showing the artists pumping out their best-known tunes. Don’t get me wrong, both camps have inspired their share of great movies, but for the most part, most of these films tend to be little more than a souvenir designed to either remind people of a show they saw or to help them convince others that they did see it--essentially the visual equivalent of a concert T-shirt. One film that managed to transcend the usual constraints of the genre was “Neil Young: Heart of Gold,” Jonathan Demme’s beautiful 2006 document of the legendary singer, in one of his first appearances since recovering from a near-fatal brain aneurism, debuting his latest album, “Prairie Wind,” before an adoring crowd at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. While Demme has made a name for himself over the years for his deft facility for fusing together cinema and music, both in such earlier concert films as “Stop Making Sense” and “Storefront Hitchcock” and in the eclectic soundtracks for his narrative films, and Young has carved out an intriguing side career by making films that are cinematic extensions of his recorded work, such as the multi-media epic “Greendale” and the tour documentary/anti-war protest film “CSNY: Déjà Vu,” this particular collaboration was more than just a excellent concert film--between Young’s inspired performance and Demme’s sensitive direction, it became a powerful and touching meditation on confronting mortality that was more haunting and emotionally resonant than most recent straightforward dramas I could mention. Now Demme and Young have reunited for a second concert film, “Neil Young Trunk Show,” and while the two couldn’t be more different from each other in both musical and cinematic terms, the end result is the same--an astonishing portrait of one unique and gifted artist working at the peak of his powers presented by another that deserves a place on the short list of the great concert movies.Like “Heart of Gold,” “Trunk Show” was shot over two 2007 performances at a single locale--Philadelphia’s Tower Theatre in this case--but the comparisons between the two pretty much end there. While “Heart of Gold” was anchored by a full performance of “Prairie Wind” and augmented by a couple of classic Young tunes that fit in with that album’s low-key sensibility, the shows chronicled here included only a handful of cuts from the then-current “Chrome Dreams II,” a stylistic grab-bag of tunes written over the past two decades (the original “Chrome Dreams,” recorded in 1977, was never officially released though all of the songs would find their way onto other albums over the next decade), alongside rarely-played album cuts (“Ambulance Blues,” “Mellow My Mind,” unreleased obscurities that had even the most dedicated fans scratching their heads (“Kansas,” “Mexico” and “Sad Movies”) and a couple of familiar warhorses (“Cinnamon Girl,” “Like a Hurricane,” “Cowgirl in the Sand”) to satisfy the more casual fans. While “Heart of Gold” maintained a smooth folk-country sound throughout, the musical selections here range from delicate acoustic numbers to full-out rockers featuring extended guitar jams that are either sonic dreams or nightmares, depending on your personal point of view. While the earlier film as a whole maintained a elegiac tone throughout with a burnished-gold visual style, an unusually verbose Young reflecting on the meaning of the songs and a palpable sense of delight and relief from both the musicians and the audience that he was still around to play another day, this one is more concerned with facing the future than in reflecting on the pass--there is exactly one moment that touches even remotely on mortality--a brief backstage discussion about a broken fingernail that may inhibit Young’s pick-free playing style (“No notes--it’s all just a bunch of fucking noise”)--and it is followed immediately by a show-stopping 20-minute-long rendition of “No Hidden Path” that is such a thing of sonic-boom beauty that defies and defangs the notion of time passing to such a degree that most viewers probably won’t realize just how long the song goes on.
Compared to the carefully crafted laid-back style of “Heart of Gold,” both musically and visually, some viewers may find the seemingly off-the-cuff nature of “Trunk Show” to be strangely abrasive at best and downright off-putting at worst but while the contributions of Demme and Young may seem to be ragged and slapped together at first, what they are doing here is actually just as intelligently conceived and executed as the earlier film. In his previous concert films, Demme has shown an unusual facility for presenting musical performance in a compelling cinematic manner. The seemingly mix of crisp digital video and deliberately grainy and raggedy footage are an accurate representation of the extremes that Young is exploring in his music and add an extra layer of meaning to many of the performances that goes far beyond the usual point-and-shoot approach to such things--the way that the visuals of the terrifying and mournful “Ambulance Blues” seem to disintegrate before finally snapping back to crystal clarity at the end adds a level of resonance to the song and what it means to Young at this point in his life that makes it more than just a simple nostalgia piece. He also does something interesting in the way that he presents us with a wide variety of perspectives--ranging from elegantly composed medium shots to extreme close-ups taken from various points on the stage to long shots from far back in the audience--that represent the actual concert-going experience in a way that I have never really seen before in a film.
As for Young, he throws himself into each song, whether old or new, quiet or loud, timeless classic or weird obscurity, with an astonishing degree of intensity and conviction that is thrilling to behold. This is not just another oldies performer aimlessly running through a greatest-hits set for a hefty paycheck in the lackluster manner of certain Super Bowl halftime entertainments one could mention. What this film has to offer is the inspiring sight of a performer more interested in moving forward than in looking back and you can feel that sense of determination and enthusiasm in every note. In “Ambulance Blues,” Young sings “It’s easy to get buried in the past/when you try to make a good thing last” but as he convincingly proves here, he has managed to achieve the latter without succumbing to the former and that is why he, with the single exception of Bob Dylan, remains the only Sixties-era musician who is still making relevant music today and touching a fan base that wasn‘t even alive during his days with the International Harvesters.“Neil Young Trunk Show” is both a great concert film and a great film period and the closest thing to a flaw that I can find in it is that those who are not already hard-core fans of Young and his music may find it to be a little too harsh and strange for their tastes at times--in that regard, “Heart of Gold” is a much better entry point for the uninitiated. However, if you are a fan and can think of few things in the world more brashly beautiful than the sight and sound of Young tearing into a lengthy guitar solo, this film is right up your alley. From what I understand, Young and Demme are contemplating doing a third film together in order to make it a formal trilogy and that is about the best movie news that I have heard in a long time, especially if said film goes light on that cycle of songs Young wrote about his eco-friendly car and includes the likes of “Ordinary People,“ “Down By the River” and “We Never Danced.“ On the “Greendale” album, Young sings “I won’t retire but I might retread” and based on the evidence here, there is a lot of life left in him and with someone as attuned to his creative energies as Demme along for the ride, I can’t wait to see what they come up with down the road.
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