The middle entry in Jonathan Demme’s proposed trilogy of Neil Young concert films, Neil Young Trunk Show finds the grizzled singer in robust, high-decibel form. Shot in Pennsylvania’s Tower Theater during the performer’s Chrome Dreams II tour, the film combines performances of classic favorites (“Cinnamon Girl,” “Cowgirl in the Sand”), overlooked numbers (“The Sultan,” “Mexico”), and late-career nerve-tinglers (“No Hidden Path”) on a stage bare but for a handful of choice props (mementos from the singer’s spiritual “trunk”) and Young’s guitar-thrusting physicality, his hair thinning and unkempt yet still sweeping. Compared to the Young who faced an open grave in 2006’s luminous, mortality-infused Heart of Gold, the singer here glows with life-worn vigor, haloed by the spotlight and set off by vibrant stage colors. When Young tears through the 20-plus minutes of “No Hidden Path,” the autumnal bent of the lyrics (“Will the northern lights still play as we walk our distant days?”) and the immediacy of his performance merge to striking effect.
Also in sharp contrast to the earlier film, which used evocative scrims and a gallery of supporting performers to forge a sublime feeling of musical community, Trunk Show largely isolates Young on a stripped-down proscenium with each ballad. And except for an amusing candid bit with pedal steel-guitar-organ virtuoso Ben Keith, the picture eschews interviews with other members of the band. If the results lack the resonance of their previous collaboration (and of Demme’s lovely earlier concert documentaries, Stop Making Sense and Storefront Hitchcock), the film is nevertheless a blast for fans of Young’s rowdier side. Will the third film reconcile Young’s grungy origins with his twilight reflections? If anyone can do it, it’s Demme, with his fluid camerawork and profound affinity for emotive, inquisitive human poetry.