|Heart of Gold (2006)
Starring: Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Grant Boatwright, Ben Keith, Spooner Oldham, Larry Cragg
Director: Jonathan Demme
Full disclosure: I cannot stand the sound of Neil Young’s voice. It makes me want to punch babies. Which is why, for the longest time, I did not like Neil Young’s songs. Over time, I heard his songs covered by Roxy Music, the Pixies and Duran Duran, and realized that the songs were good; it was the voice that blew chunks. Now comes a concert movie, “Neil Young: Heart of Gold,” and I am assigned to cover it. This is patently unfair to Young, of course, so I try my damndest to find someone, anyone, who likes Neil Young to join me and write a level-headed review for BE. Unfortunately, the screening is at 11:00 in the morning. Most people, as you might imagine, have things to do then, like their jobs. So let it not be said that I did not make extensive efforts to find someone to write this review who did not suffer from the same bias that inflicts me.
Not that I’m sure it would have mattered. “Neil Young: Heart of Gold,” is lusciously shot, but the material – yes, I’m biased, but go with me on this one – and even the legendary venue undermine the efforts of director Jonathan Demme to make a grownup companion piece to his seminal “Stop Making Sense.” Simply put, some of it looked like a high school play.
The movie opens with interviews, either in cars or elevators, of Young and his band en route to Nashville’s Hyman Auditorium last year to debut the music from his most recent album, Prairie Wind. Some interviews are more revealing than others; one longtime member of Young’s band tells a long story about how he got in by just being a friend of a friend, while another speaks in vivid detail of the operation Young had recently undergone to treat a brain aneurysm. Then Emmylou Harris pops up on camera, and suddenly you get the sense that this might be some supergroup extravaganza with guest appearances from the titans of Young’s era. That doesn’t happen, but that is not what kills the movie. What kills the movie, to be honest, is that half of the set list – the front half of the set list, no less – is from Prairie Wind. The album just isn’t that good.
But God love his band for selling it with everything they’ve got. His backing singers, highlighted by Neil’s wife Pegi Young and Diana DeWitt, are so into these songs that Demme, wisely, features them prominently. With all due respect to Young’s band, they ain’t eye candy. Young, though, and particularly DeWitt, are. Which brings us to Emmylou Harris, who performs like someone offstage is pointing a gun at her head. She sounds fine, but she looks bored, and if she’s bored singing these songs, how is the audience supposed to feel while watching them? There was even a moment where the editing had the drummer playing on the down beat, something that was forgivable in the early MTV days but an unpardonable sin today. Then there are those scrim changes, where backdrops were wheeled onstage from one side or the other, and looked like the high school plays I performed in. The Hyman may be a hallowed venue, but are you telling me that Young couldn’t spring for a little sumpin’ sumpin’ for his own concert movie? He’s already got about 50 people onstage with him. He couldn’t throw in a few bones for a few nice backdrops?
Luckily, the second half of the set is much, much better than the first one. Any song the diehards are waiting for is likely here, from “Needle and the Damage Done” and “Harvest Moon” to “Old Man” and the movie’s title track. Still, unlike “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party,” where even hip hop haters will find something to enjoy, this movie is for Young fans, and Young fans only. When he covered a song that he used to play to death on a jukebox in his youth, all I could think was, “I wonder how much better this song sounds when the guy sings it himself?”
So there you go. If you loves you some Neil, “Heart of Gold” is going to be a treat. If, on the other hand, you’re not down with him (even “Columbus Dispatch” critic Frank Gabrenya, the Godfather of the local movie critics, pawned the assignment off on an underling), you’ve got a long 103 minutes ahead of you. If someone sweet talks you into seeing this with them, make sure you get some sexual favors in return. You will have earned them.
The single-disc release of Neil Young's concert film features a bonus song ("He Was the King"), rehearsal diaries narrated by director Jonathan Demme, six in-depth feturettes, and a 1971 performance from the "Johnny Cash Show."