Heart of Gold’s attention to even the smallest details does as much to cement Demme as the greatest concert filmmaker ever as his more bombastic live documents.
em>Neil Young: Heart of Gold opens with images of a renovated Nashville, one filled equally with contemporary tourist traps and the faded façades of classic buildings. Riding in various cars to a concert with Neil Young and his backing band members as they head to a concert, Jonathan Demme soaks up the anecdotes offered by everyone, fleshing out a richer portrait of Young through his own testimony and that of his colleagues. Young explains his recording and touring process, mentioning how he prefers to work with people he likes and gels with rather than the most in-demand session musicians. His statement is loosely corroborated by steel guitarist Ben Keith, who recounts meeting Young decades ago and jamming for five songs before either introduced himself to the other. There’s a gentle, laid-back nature to these early scenes, undermined only when some of the musicians mention Young’s recent aneurysm, itself following not too far after the death of the artist’s father.
This background information, provided Young’s band rather than him directly, prefigures how the artist uses the gig, the premiere live performance of Young’s then-new LP, Prairie Wind, to highlight the record’s personal nature. For the performance, he leaves aside his cantankerously loud, grungy electric side, Young sticks with an acoustic guitar (one that belonged to Hank Williams, no less) and a country sound that makes the Canadian sound as if he grew up in the South. With his band of regular collaborators and a hell of a supporting player in Emmylou Harris, Young runs through the album’s somber, wistful Americana, as well as a second set of older acoustic favorites.
Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry, is a large, storied venue whose historical importance hangs over the band’s performance, but Demme approaches the theater with an intimacy to match the material being played. When the concert starts, for example, the camera pushes in on the retreating curtain with a crane shot that nonetheless has the feel and tone of an excited parent zooming in on their kid in the school play. For the first song, the camera never moves to a close-up, preferring instead to take in the entire band the way an audience member might. Only toward the end does it push in close to Young, only to cut back to a master shot as the song ends, as if not yet ready to join the band on-stage.
Throughout the film, Ellen Kuras’ cinematography emphasizes the quaint mood of the music, by, for instance, focusing on the golden glow of the stage lighting to match images of amber waves of grain (a line Young directly cribs for “No Wonder”). Using the strong spotlights as key lamps, Kuras also plays up the theater’s glitzy rendition of country grit, resembling more the sunny optimism of postwar portrait photography than the dourness of Depression-era images that one might expect the more cynical Young to mine for his own poetry. “Falling Off the Face of the Earth” begins with Young in chiaroscuro profile, but even this image has an inviting quality to it, aiding the confessional aspect of the lyrics. Big-band shots are routinely as thrilling, such as a tracking shot that runs down an almost comically long line of guitarists assembled from musicians and crew alike for “Comes a Time.” The moment, which comes toward the end of the show, is not unlike the full-band imagery of Stop Making Sense, depicting a quintessential outlier in pop music surrounded by an ad hoc family. That the song is dedicated to the late Nicolette Larson, who sang on the original recording, only deepens the emotional pull of the shot.
Demme uses this subtle synchronization of image and theme to bolster his broader interest in the people making the music. Young’s between-song banter is softly spoken and amicable, largely a collection of anecdotes of his childhood that touch upon his late father. But Demme’s pervading interest in everyone means that we get a fuller portrait of the star through the ample time given to his supporting players. While introducing “Far from Home,” for example, Young tells a story about receiving his first guitar, a plastic ukulele, from his dad. The recollection is more quirky than sad, filled with little touches of dry humor, but there is nonetheless an infinitesimal second where Young nearly chokes up remembering his father, pausing just long enough to suggest he is composing himself but not long enough to clue in the audience and invite sympathetic applause. Rick Rosas, the bassist, notices this small tic, however, and he smiles at Young from the background, tacitly encouraging him. Rosas is entertaining throughout, especially in the periphery of Young and Harris’s duet on “Old King,” in which he gets so caught up in the groove that he begins bobbing his head to the beat, amusing himself as two mega-stars sing feet away from him. Demme’s generosity extends even to the road crew, as seen in one bit where a roadie grabs a stool to carry off-stage as Young switches songs and the camera darts to follow the man, ignoring the artist simply to watch the older gentleman complete his task and return to his post just off-stage, standing erect like a palace guard awaiting further instruction.
Few would characterize Prairie Wind as one of Neil Young’s better albums, instead enshrining it in that purgatorial loop that awaits all late-period albums by legends of somehow always being unimportant but the best since the last acknowledged great record. Yet the combination of Young’s open and earnest performance and Demme’s graceful direction emphasizes the themes and feelings already evident in the studio material. When Young sings “Trying to remember what my daddy said, before time took away too much of his head” in the title track, it’s hard not to be moved by how directly he has addressed his father’s dementia elsewhere in the show. Above all, Demme captures the joy of seeing live music, of feeling that connection with an artist on a stage. Of all the small flourishes of direction, the best may be the canted angles in “It’s a Dream,” which swoon gently with the music like a fan’s head swaying. Of Demme’s concert movies, Heart of Gold is the smallest in scope, but its attention to even the smallest details does as much to cement him as the greatest concert filmmaker ever as his more bombastic live documents.