Neil Young thought he was going to die, so he recorded an album. It’s what you do when you’re an artist, try to get those last thoughts out. The album he recorded was called Prairie Wind, and it’s one of his quiet records (Neil Young is notable for the manic-depressive aspect of his music, in that he can alternate an album of speaker-shredding feedback with an album of acoustic country tunes. The only other artist who chafes at boundaries and categories in the same way is Bob Dylan, and I don’t think he’s ever been as drastic as Young), filled with meditations on his youth, the passage of time, the way the world changes, and most of all, death.
He didn’t die, on the off chance that you didn’t know that already. He got better, and when the album was finished he gathered his band – most of whom he has been working with for 30 years or more – and he did two shows in Nashville, in the Ryman Auditorium, once home of the Grand Ol Opry in its heyday, and arguably one of the most important buildings in American musical history. The people coming to the shows didn’t know the album, since Prairie Wind had not yet been released. Young and the band played through the album, in order, and finished up with old classics and favorites, and the two nights were documented by Jonathan Demme, who had made concert film history with the Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense.
Concert films feel like a thing of the past, before the opportunity to see a great live act on TV or DVD seemed ubiquitous. Walking in to Heart of Gold I was concerned that my attention span, which has received a Dresden-like bombing from MTV, the internet and video games over the last few decades, wouldn’t hold up, that I would be hopelessly bored by the almost elderly Young playing his beat up guitar. What I underestimated is the power of performance, something that MTV doesn’t seem to trust. A great performer on stage is magnetizing – you don’t need a laser show or grand mal editing to make it more interesting. Once the performance begins in Heart of Gold you’re grabbed, and you’re rapt until that last song, a solo acoustic number by Young playing to an empty auditorium.
Demme weaves together footage from the two shows (and, I suspect, a dress rehearsal) into a seamless whole. I was only able to catch sight of one wandering cameraman during the film – your usual MTV-style concert footage is filled with cameramen and sound guys half the time, lending the performance a distancing arena feel. Demme’s movie is up close and personal, creating a conduit of communication between the artist and the audience, one where we’re invited into Young’s melancholy musings. Demme has an incredible eye for the silent messages that pass between musicians, and his camera picks up wonderful moments of connection – eyes locking, a small smile, a nod. It’s the interplay of minds in action, and it’s not something a lesser director would bother with.
If there’s any downside to Heart of Gold it’s that Prairie Wind isn’t the album it could be. It’s touted as the third in a trilogy that began with Harvest Moon and Harvest, and thematically and aurally it’s similar, but the songs on Prairie Wind play like echoes of the older, better songs. They’re not bad, exactly, but they’re not great. On CD the songs are easy to ignore, but on stage Young’s presence makes them immediate.
One of the best moments in the film comes about halfway in – Young reveals that the guitar he’s playing once belonged to Hank Williams, the great grandfather of rock n’ roll, and one of the all time greatest country artists. Hank had played the Opry when it was in the Ryman, and he had been fired, a victim of the country music establishment’s ever short-sighted inability to recognize the true talents. That guitar, a veritable holy artifact (not only had Hank Sr owned it, but Young had written Heart of Gold and Old Man on it years ago), made a pilgrimage back to that hall, and it’s a heavy and great moment, punctuated by the Ryman’s stained glass, church-like windows. It’s part of the sense of history and continuity that permeates the film, as Young sings a favorite Canadian country song from his youth and bellows ballads about growing up a young man on the Canadian plains.
Neil Young isn’t the lanky, shaggy rebel who wrote Ohio in hours. He’s heavier, a little bloated, taking on an aspect of the Akroyd in some ways, but that voice is still there – a battered, nasally, almost screechy voice that’s perfectly fucking evocative. Watching his face it’s like it hurts him to sing that way – he contorts and scrunches up his features, birthing an emotion with each note.
Heart of Gold isn’t just about two concerts. It’s about the family of musicians Young has built up around him, it’s about the communion between an artist and his audience, and it’s about the moments we have left. It’s a gorgeous and often moving film that captures the essence of Neil Young’s acoustic work perfectly.