Film, as a medium, provides writers and directors the opportunity to tell great stories. But sometimes, as is the case with Jonathan Demme’s latest effort, Neil Young Journeys, film simply goes along for the ride with an even greater storyteller as he does his thing. Neil Young is a great — and greatly underrated — storyteller, and that admission comes from a music fan who is not even all that familiar with his best efforts. When it comes to his music, I know the myth, the greatest hits, if you will — his time with Crosby, Stills and Nash, his on-again, off-again work with Crazy Horse, his raging solo releases. Through it all, he has inspired peers and several later-generation Rock & Rollers to sing and play until the music bleeds out of them.
And yet, what strikes me most about Journeys is not the idea of him as a volatile rocker, but just how warm and funny a companion he is, driving along in his 1956 Ford Crown Victoria, following his brother Bob along the back roads of Ontario. He’s cruising and Demme places us in the passenger seat as Young reminisces about his family, the land and his seemingly primal connection to it, and how fragile memory can be.
Young shares stories, real snippets from his early childhood, but he does so with no illusions about them being completely accurate. He’s creating impressions, much like song lyrics, but there’s rambling meat on the bones offering the sense and deep feel of sustenance.
Before long, though, we find ourselves with him, onstage, as a parallel journey emerges. The whole time Young was making his way through Ontario he was heading for Massey Hall in Toronto where, during two nights in 2011, Demme captured him performing a combination of old hits and new material, an album with producer Daniel Lanois (known for his work in the late 1980s with U2). The songs, another set of stories, take over, and Young finds ways to make them sound whole and new, as if he’s telling them for the first time or maybe he’s still sitting in the car with us at his side and they pass by like markers on the road.
Young’s not the greatest singer or a technically brilliant guitarist, but when he applies his talents in the service of his stories, these songs become ruggedly modern hymns. His style infuses a bit of grace into these moments, these quiet arcs. His voice, at once fragile and raw, retains its youth and urgency, which contrasts with his visage, that of a wise old hermit who has invited us in for a drink and taste of his leftovers.
For a point of comparison, Young stands opposite, say, The Rolling Stones, documented by Martin Scorsese in Shine a Light a few years ago, because despite wearing the crown as one of the greatest Rock & Roll bands (still performing after all these years), there’s the nagging sense that what we are watching, the spectacle of them together onstage, is little more than The Stones covering themselves better than anyone else could. And while that might be worth celebrating, what Young does is different and certainly more meaningful to him (and by extension us, along with the musicians who idolize him). Young is still dedicated to making music. He continues to rock and is fully challenged by Rock & Roll.
The form and function of the music cannot die when it still has the power to inspire an old master like Young. His presence onstage says there are chapters to be written in this story because the music is alive and perhaps even well. It has taken him past his old stomping grounds to new places, and he’s inviting us on the trip.
Demme has given audiences other wild musical journeys (The Talking Heads classic Stop Making Sense back in 1984, which made big suits and jittery dancing all the rage), but this time all roads lead to one destination, straight ahead. (PG) Grade: A