Music, from rock to reggae to blues, has always played an integral part in Jonathan Demme’s movies, so it’s no surprise to see the director become the poet laureate of the concert film. Whether detailing the genius of the Talking Heads in the scintillating Stop Making Sense or capturing Robyn Hitchcock’s virtuosic performances in Storefront Hitchcock, Demme has offered some of the medium’s most joyously expressive fusions of cinema and song. His musical fascination reached an emotional peak with Neil Young: Heart of Gold, a visualization of the legendary singer’s Prairie Wind album that combines the rhythmic beauty of the filmmaker’s concert films with the lucidity of his documentaries on Jean Dominique and Jimmy Carter.
Now comes The Neil Young Trunk Show, the second film in a proposed trilogy of collaborations between the director and performer. Clearly, Demme (a self-described “Young groupie”) feels an affinity for Young’s art, but how did their paths first cross?
“I’ll give you the clean version,” Demme said with a laugh when I met him at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where he and producer L.A. Johnson were presenting the film as part of the festival’s “In Concert” series. “I feel as though I’ve known Neil for 30 years before me met, through his music. I was awestruck by his strength, his poetry. And the awe has not diminished even after years of friendship.” Filming Philadelphia in 1993 gave them a chance to work together. “Neil had just done the song ’Philadelphia’ for the movie, and I asked him to keep me in mind if he ever needed somebody to shoot a music video. We then got to talking about filming a song for his new album Mirror Ball.”
Demme recalled how Young’s unconventional working methods contrasted with the painstaking stylistic preparation that went into the video for their chosen song, “Change Your Mind.” “[Cinematographer] Tak Fujimoto and I had everything planned out, and Neil comes in hours late, wanting to improvise. I think I was being tested to see whether I could keep up, and we’ve been on the same page since.”
When scheduling conflicts kept them from collaborating in 2003’s Greendale, Demme and Young teamed up three years later with Heart of Gold. “We created Heart of Gold from scratch. The huge scrims, the performances presented in the guise of the Grand Ole Opry, all of it came from our discussions on how to visualize the emotions of the music. Every composition was prepared, there were marks on the floor for where each band member was going to be.”
Adds Johnson: “The thing about Heart of Gold is that it wasn’t a record of a show. Imagine touring with those sets and those lighting patterns! It was designed from the beginning as a film, where Trunk Show always existed as part of a great touring show.”
With the Chrome Dreams II tour already in progress in Pennsylvania, Young’s manager Elliott Roberts contacted Demme to see if it was “film-worthy.” “And, of course, it was,” the director smiles. Young’s energetic stage performances, including a vigorous rendition of the sprawling “No Hidden Path,” remain among the new picture’s most striking elements, particularly following the more stately, mortality-infused ruminations of Heart of Gold.
“His rampant physicality in number after number is amazing,” Demme says. “The beautiful thing about Neil is that he doesn’t practice poses for the performance, you know, ’Do I look cool like this?’ For him, it’s about communicating the song to the maximum, whether it’s ’Cinnamon Girl’ or ’Cowgirl in the Sand’ or ’Mellow My Mind.’ And when he gets into the moment, he just charges across the stage, brandishing the instruments like they’re Excalibur or something.” Demme gets up to mimic the singer’s guitar-thrusting movements. “I’m always asking myself where he gets that energy from.”
After the painterly compositions of the earlier movie, Demme switched to multiple handheld cameras for Trunk Show. “Nothing was planned. The goal was to capture the immediacy of the event, and I was blessed to have good musicians, guitar players, for six of the seven camera operators, people who could anticipate where Neil was going to turn with his body or the instruments over the course of a song and capture the most vivid moments with spontaneity.”
Eschewing backstage footage and audience reaction shots, the film focuses exclusively on the music. “If there’s a funny, revealing human bit, like when you see big, grizzled Neil Young getting his fingernails filed between numbers, sure, let’s include it. Here, however, [the performances] are what’s interesting, and also what we could do with them cinematically and emotionally. Connecting the moods of the songs. Look at what Martin Scorsese did with the Rolling Stones in Shine a Light. That was a fantastic presentation. Concert movies are journeys into the music.”