Film: Looking for a Sign

The concert film Neil Young: Heart of Gold finds the longtime troubadour in a reflective mood

Mar 8, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Focus Features

Ang Lee took home a pair of Best Director awards last weekend for his work on Brokeback Mountain

Jonathan Demme orders orange juice for himself, Neil Young and me at Zoom Restaurant in Park City, Utah. It's a refreshing way to begin a morning interview on behalf of the concert film Neil Young: Heart of Gold.

The film, which Demme directed, features Young showcasing gently intimate, quietly thoughtful acoustic arrangements of Folk and Country Rock songs from last year's Prairie Wind album plus older material. The concert was staged for the camera over two days last August at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, with audiences present.

At the world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival two nights before this interview, the sold-out audience at the 1,270-seat auditorium gave a standing ovation to Young — dressed in black Western-wear and cowboy hat with longish gray hair — right at the start.

This reception was a kind of unspoken "thank you" from the audience to the 60-year-old Young for surviving surgery last year he'd suffered a potentially fatal brain aneurysm. The melodic Prairie Wind songs, with quietly reflective lyrics about his life until now, were for the most part written and recorded between his initial diagnosis and surgery.

The movie, in turn, was a means by which Young was offering his own form of "thank you" for being alive. It was filmed not long after his recovery from the surgery. Young and Demme first worked together when the singer/songwriter contributed a song to the director's 1993 drama Philadelphia.

Demme also made one of the all-time greatest concert films, Stop Making Sense, for Talking Heads as well as Storefront Hitchcock with British singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock.

"Everything I do in one way or another from now on is going to be a thank you — just walking down the street," Young declares, sitting at the restaurant table next to Demme. His voice, unaffectedly straightforward and plainspoken, perfectly matches the direct way he looks at his interviewer while answering questions.

The Prairie Wind songs sound affecting in the film. And the elegiac power of the older songs from the late 1960s and 1970s, as well as from 1992's Harvest Moon, is surprising. There's something at work here besides nostalgia in his versions of such compositions as "Heart of Gold," "Old Man," "I Am a Child," "Comes a Time" and "Needle and the Damage Done."

In this film, they become about watching how Young has changed — or remains unchanged — while being struck by how preternaturally mature these songs were when written. As a young man, he already seemed so concerned about "getting old," to quote a memorable phrase from 1972's Heart of Gold.

"I seemed to know more about it then than I do now," Young says, which yields a hearty laugh from him and Demme. "I don't even know where I was coming from back then."

That prompts Young to remember the circumstances under which he wrote one of his earliest songs, the mournful "The Old Laughing Lady."

"It's the oldest song in Heart of Gold," he says. "I wrote it before I even got to Buffalo Springfield (the late-1960s Rock band of which he was a member). I was in a White Tower in Detroit across from a club and wrote it on napkin in the middle of the night. I had no place to go, no house, no hotel, no money."

The job of the troubadour, Young explains, is winning an audience over with new material and then making it hear the old songs in a new way. And that's not easy for someone as famous as he is.

"I have to overcome the celebration aspects of it — you know, people see me and get so excited and want to hear every song that's their favorite song," Young says. "Once you succeed at that, people are opened up and really listening to you. So then we get to the point we're doing old songs and they're still in that mode. They're going, 'I've got to pay attention here.' It presents a whole new look at the old songs. This is what singer/songwriters are supposed to do."

Demme, who turned 62 last month, interjects that the Boomer audience who grew up with Young might indeed hear some of those songs differently now than decades earlier.

"I know when I first heard 'Heart of Gold' or 'Old Man' I loved them and I was really grooving to them," he says, snapping his fingers. "When I see them now in the film, the emotional kick lurking under those lyrics comes across to me in a way it never needed to do before. At that phase in my life I wasn't contemplating anything. I was digging the music."

Young acknowledges that important change.

"In some ways, some of the lyrics resonate a little differently than they did," he says.

He also credits his fellow musicians at the Ryman event for giving the older songs added power — they include Ben Keith on pedal-steel guitar, slide guitar and dobro; Spooner Oldham on B3 organ and piano; and singers Pegi Young (his wife), Diana Dewitt and Emmylou Harris.

After the interview comes to an end, I take a few minutes to collect belongings and go down the stairs from the restaurant's second floor to the exit. Coming up from a quick break is Young.

So one final question is asked: What next? Young answers directly with the unexpected frankness of a man who is still a bit shaken by his experiences, but glad to be alive.

"I'm just looking for a sign," he says. ©