As great and intimate as Live at Massey Hall 1971 may be, it’s not as transportive as Jonathan Deem’s filming of a Neil Young performance at the venue 30 years later. On the 1971 concert album, in which the newly famous Young returned to his native Toronto to play a set after forming Buffalo Springfield in Los Angeles, we listen to the singer play for an audience, and in Neil Young Journeys we’re given the illusion of being there, front row and at times seemingly alone with the singer, despite still being able to hear the audience. That is, until somewhere in the second half of the film, when our cozy session is interrupted with a a brief glimpse of some of the audience. Emblematic (or is it symptomatic?) of this direct approach is when a glob of Young’s spit lands on Demme’s “spitcam,” a small camera stationed on the microphone stand, in an unapologetically textural moment.
It’s also in this respect that Neil Young Journeys differs from Demme’s prior concert docs with the musician, Neil Young: Heart of Gold and The Neil Trunk Show. While they have more in common than they have differences, in Neil Young Journeys we’re given Young solo, with only the artist and his incredibly loud instruments to fill up the space of Massey Hall; same when we sit shotgun with him as he drives a Crown Vic (his Lincvolt, no joke, will be featured in Demme and Young’s next collaboration, which has been shooting for five years) behind his older brother through his hometown of Omemee, Ontario, sharing childhood anecdotes like the time he lit off some firecrackers in a turtle’s rearend and how his father, a famous writer that a local school is named after, played the only white man in a minstrel show featuring actors in black face. That the concert footage is interspersed with these scenes of driving and reflection iterate how personal Young’s lyrics are to his life.
The film’s sound quality is outstanding; it was engineered at 96 kilohertz (currently, most movie theaters can only receive 48khz) and the difference is immediate, especially when Young plays on the acoustic guitar he used on his album Le Noise, which creates, in the words of producer Daniel Lanois, a “cutting, razor-drill sound and this beautiful bass tone with sweet melody on the other end.” Although I could have done without the over-literalizing of the “four dead in Ohio,” in which Demme employs actual photos of the victims, the visuals (including a split-screen) feel appropriately exploratory given the experimental sounds coming from Young’s specially designed instrument, and, however odd certain shots may initially feel, seem to strike a balance with the tone of this great artist’s songs.