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“I’m a lot like you were”: Jonathan Demme and Neil Young’s Heart of Gold

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“I’m a lot like you were”: Jonathan Demme and Neil Young’s <em>Heart of Gold</em>

Jonathan Demme’s Heart of Gold, a concert film starring Neil Young, is not just a record of a performance, it’s an example of great filmmaking at its most direct. It encourages you not just to contemplate Neil Young, the man and the musician, and connect his music with his life, but also to think about art and what it means to be an artist while admiring a brilliant movie’s crystalline construction.

Shot in 2005 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry, just five months after Young survived an operation to neutralize a potentially fatal brain anyeurism, Heart of Gold features Young, his backup band, his regular collaborator Emmylou Harris, a horn section, a string section and a gospel choir. The set list is broken cleanly in two. Part One is a live performance of Young’s biographical concept album Prairie Wind, the third panel in a series of albums that also includes 1972’s Harvest and his 20-years-later followup Harvest Moon. Part Two cherry picks songs from earlier in Young’s career. The juxtaposition of older and new material prompts the viewer to realize, with delight, how much of Young’s output seems to be told from the perspective of an older man looking back on life or a younger man looking forward to wisdom.

Concert films are too often content to cover one or two stops in a tour with multiple cameras, cut it all together and call it a day. Not Young and Demme. They have planned, built and executed this concert film in a way that amplifies and clarifies that insight, in much the same way that a great music hall amplifies and clarifies the music being performed. Shot by Ellen Kuras (Swoon, Personal Velocity), edited by Andy Keir (Beloved) and production designed by Michael Zansky (Donnie Brasco), the entire movie is full of small and large touches that strongly suggest that you’re watching the film equivalent of a concept album, touches that play on one of two artistic POV’s, Young Man Looking Forward or Old Man Looking Back. The movie’s physical construction—the selection and placement of songs in Young’s set list, the set and lighting design during particular numbers, the compositions and cuts—works toward a unified purpose. These choices are all meant to mirror one phase of Young’s life with another, or answer one small yet telling moment with another.

In the first half, for example, Young speaks affectionately of his now-college-age daughter, who’s so protective of her independence that he doesn’t dare communicate with her as frankly as he’d like. “You know how it is,” he says. “You can’t say much.” An anecdote in the second half reveals that one of his greatest, wisest early songs, “Old Man,” was written as an affectionate tribute to his ranch foreman. The lines “Old man, take a look at my life/I’m a lot like you were,” which previously seemed like a plea by a Baby Boomer seeking common ground with a scornful elder, here acquire a personal, autobiographical dimension: it’s Young reminding himself, back then, that even though he was a rich and famous young rock star, he needed to keep his head screwed on straight and remember what was truly important, finding and keeping love. (“I need someone to love me the whole day through/Ah, one look in your eyes and you can tell that’s true.”)

As you hear that song performed onscreen in Demme’s film and gaze on Young’s Lazarus visage in closeup, you are invited to think about the fact that young Neil Young has at last become the Old Man of which he sang, and to realize that for all its craft and sincerity, that song’s sentiments are surely not as profound as the lessons Young would learn while growing up and growing old. (One of Neil Young’s early peculiarities, or distinctions, was his cracked, sweet, quavering voice, which was gorgeous and unnerving issuing from a twentysomething rocker; he’s grown older but the voice hasn’t, and now he’s finally reached a point where that Old Man voice issues from the body you expect to see.) Demme and Young’s structure allows the performer to stand in the present while looking backward and forward. The result is a sense that Young has been unmoored from earthly constraints, freed to roam through his life and work. This clarifies old favorites such as “I Am a Child,” from a child addressing a parent:

“I am a child, I’ll last a while./You can’t conceive of the pleasure in my smile.

“God gave to you, now, you give to me,/I’d like to know what you learned./The sky is blue and so is the sea./What is the color, when black is burned?/What is the color?

“You are a man, you understand./You pick me up and you lay me down again./You make the rules, you say what’s fair,/It’s lots of fun to have you there.

“God gave to you, now, you give to me,/I’d like to know what you learned./The sky is blue and so is the sea./What is the color, when black is burned?/What is the color?”

Demme’s control of the medium is so great that he can create powerful equations by answering one shot with another. Consider the wide shot that captures most of Young’s song “Needle and the Damage Done” in an unbroken take. The performer is seen from head to toe in the extreme right hand side of the frame, lit harshly from above so that his facial features are largely obscured. This visual strategy diminishes Young in the frame and effectively obliterates his identity; considering that Young is performing a song about heroin addiction, originally written for Crazy Horse guitarist and future overdose victim Danny Whitten, the aesthetic strategy is just right. This powerful image is complemented by the film’s static, unbroken, closing credits shot, an exact mirror of the “Needle” shot; this one places Young in the extreme left side of the frame and watches him sit on an empty stage in an empty auditorium and perform a number on acoustic guitar, then pack up the instrument and serenely exit. The literal mirroring of one shot with another suggests that we’re being asked to consider drugs and music as addictions, one destructive, the other life-sustaining. The two shots also suggest two ways to die, as victim and free man.

As in Demme’s other performance pictures, Stop Making Sense, Swimming to Cambodia and Storefront Hitchcock, it is possible to subject the whole film to this sort of scrutiny without running out of things to admire. A great deal of thought has gone into every lighting cue, every costume, every change of backdrop (check out the faux-folksy, painted “interior” that’s unfurled behind the band during nostalgic numbers; it looks like an unpublished Clement Hurd painting for the children’s book Goodnight, Moon). And as always, Demme directs with a musician’s intuitive grasp of the rhythms of performance. I can’t even begin to list the number of times I found myself wishing that Demme would cut to a particular performer at the exact moment that he did. Kuras’ camerapeople are so graceful and exact that you find yourself admiring not just the timing of the images, but their easygoing intimacy. A drum is shot so tight that you can see the scuff marks on the skin. Another number starts with a closeup of the instrument that produces that skritch-sktritch noise folk and country musicians love so much: a broom being swept lightly across a sheet of sandpaper.

You also find yourself admiring what can be described as critical or editorial choices, decisions that suggest how Demme and Kuras might have characterized each number before they figured out how to shoot it. For example, I can’t swear to this because I’ve only seen the film once, but I am pretty sure that most of the backward-looking numbers occur within a warm color scheme, and the forward-looking or present-focused numbers tend toward the blue end of the scale. Panoramic or narrative-oriented songs tend to start and end with a wide shot, while more ruminative, internalized pieces start and end with a tight closeup.

There’s so much going on in Heart of Gold that whoever watches it is likely to come away with a different set of observations related to the film’s structural and visual decisions, and idiosyncratic notions of why those decisions were made. For instance, Keith Uhlich’s Slant magazine review likens the film’s Musicians-Going-To-The-Venue opener to the first section of Demme’s Swimming to Cambodia. “It introduces each of the musicians,” Uhlich writes, “…and allows them a pithy observation or two, but note how these short snippets gain profundity through Demme’s compositional and editorial choices. Not one of the alternating medium shots is from exactly the same angle. The cumulative effect, when cut together, is that of a connective circle of experience, one that foreshadows and approximates the musicians’ onstage actions and interactions. The August blue full moon that Demme captures in the sky above the Ryman acts as a benedictive symbol of Young’s humanist theater-in-the-round.”

It’s no shock that Young and company would deliver a powerfully affecting performance or that Demme would find ways to interpret and enlarge it rather than just record it. But the film’s empathy, intelligence and meticulous construction are still breathtaking. Heart of Gold meets and exceeds even the most optimistic expectations. It’s close to perfect.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door.