At the decrepit old age of 26, in the hippie summer of 1972, Neil Young first sang "I've been a miner for a heart of gold/ And I'm getting old." If you owned an AM radio in the 1970s, you couldn't escape it. At a certain point in the touching new concert film from Jonathan Demme, Neil Young: Heart of Gold - near the end of what feels at times like his last show ever - the singer performs his country-rock classic again, a lonely shuffle of a ballad with a soaring chorus, which remains his sole stab at the Billboard Top 10.
This time, however, he's 60, as wall-eyed as always, but not as reedy as those days in the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter scene; wearing an old Buck Owens suit with fancy trim, performing in Nashville's Ryman Auditorium (original home of the Grand Ole Opry), he cuts an imposing figure, lumbering and stooped. He's surrounded by a small army of musicians, old friends, relatives, his wife, Pegi, that ageless silver-haired sweetheart of the rodeo, Emmylou Harris; later, a gospel chorus, strings, horns, and a lot of ghosts. He looks content, as if he knows what's next; he's made peace with memories and ambitions and has nothing to prove. He also looks grateful.
Yet somehow utterly alone.
Concert films are about capitalizing. Or capturing a moment (Dave Chappelle's Block Party). Or in the case of The Band's Last Waltz (which features a cameo from Young), documenting the passing of an era. Neil Young: Heart of Gold, which opens today in Toledo after delay upon delay, is a living will, a long good-bye, a spine-tingling testament - the uniquely insistent refusal of a rock star to turn away from age.
Demme is ideal. He shot what many consider the best rock film of all, the Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense, and repeats what worked for that 1984 classic - a camera front and center, lingering close-ups on faces, stellar sound, few crowd shots. He does the remarkable thing of focusing not on the expressions of the performers but their concentration. Heart of Gold plays like the contemplative kin of Stop Making Sense: The colors are still bold but electric reds are replaced with melancholy golds.
There's history here:
Heart of Gold was filmed in August of last year, a few months after Young entered a New York hospital for surgery on a quite-likely fatal brain aneurysm. He wrote a bunch of new songs before he went under the knife, about giving thanks for his kids, remembering his dad in Canada (who had just died after a slow decline from Alzheimer's), about aches he felt for dreams never realized and things left unsaid.
Can you eulogize yourself?
"And I'm getting old?"
The first half of the film is the new "Prairie Wind" suite, played almost in its entirety, in order; an elegiac cycle about aging and remembrance and mortality. It's when he gets to the second half (a kind of extended encore), full of 35-year old hits and favorites, the weight and the arc of his career shoots a chill up your spine.
Here, too, is a cycle about, well, aging and remembrance and mortality. It's as his work had always meant to resonate in exactly this way. When he gets to the refrain of the title track, the lyrics deepen and play catch-up with the creator. When he digs into "Old Man," from that same halcyon '70s period, what was an emphatic couplet ("Old man take a look at my life/ I'm a lot like you") is now irony laid bare.
I mentioned ghosts.
He writes about old dogs and dead friends and his father; at one point he plays with a guitar once owned by Hank Williams. But those ghosts include the ghosts of Young's younger selves, too. The new songs are not challenging, and that's not the intention: When the old Young sings "If you follow every dream/ You might get lost," from the new song "The Painter," the musician who always shied from being pegged is in conversation with a younger self, who taunted, "Just think of me as one you'll never figure."
I dreaded seeing this film.
Not because Young is a stubborn artist of two minds - there's the folky, acoustic Neil, and the violently loud and glorious god of feedback - and I prefer the cacophony of Young and Crazy Horse over the laid-back shuffle of "Prairie Wind." The title's name check of his best-known (but far from greatest) hit suggested a bloodless oldies show; couple that with recent history and the potential is there for an overblown pity party. I couldn't have been more wrong: He's an over-reacher, yes; he's paying his farewells. But nostalgic he's not.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org