Pleasant trip to no place special
By David Malitz
Friday, July 20, 2012
Let’s get this out of the way upfront -- “Neil Young Journeys” is pretty pointless. That’s not the same as pretty awful. Far from it. It’s a Neil Young concert film, and watching a performance by one of rock music’s all-time greats is almost certainly more fulfilling than whatever you’ve got lined up for the next 90 minutes. (No offense.)
But, man, there have been lots of Neil Young concert films/documentaries over the years. “Journeys” doesn’t even rank in the top five. Let that sink in for a second. Just recently there have been two superior ones (2006’s poignant “Heart of Gold” and 2009’s rollicking “Neil Young Trunk Show”) that were directed by Jonathan Demme, who handles duties again this time. It was as if Demme and Young felt compelled to make another simply so they could call the set a trilogy. “Journeys” doesn’t bring any sense of closure, which is not really a problem because Young’s career remains a locomotive admirably chugging forward. But are we really at the point where every time he goes on tour it’s deserving of big-screen treatment?
“Journeys” captures a fine 2011 concert at Toronto’s Massey Hall, which was part of Young’s solo tour in support of his fine 2010 album, “Le Noise.” Neither the tour nor the album will rank among Young’s career highlights or lowlights. (There have been plenty of both.) The unaccompanied performances are a unique way to watch Young, as he hacks his way through quaking solo electric guitar rumblers and sits down for gentler piano ballads in a set split evenly between recent material and greatest hits. Demme spends lots of time very close to his subject, sometimes uncomfortably so.
On “Down by the River,” the camera feels almost intrusive, and you see every grimace and fleck of spit that flies from Young’s mouth as he rips through the 1969 classic. Some of that stray spittle smears the lens at the start of “Hitchhiker,” so we watch that song through a slightly hallucinatory filter, somewhat fitting given the druggy nature of the song. The lilting piano song “Leia” is one long close-up; “After the Goldrush” is mostly one long take from the inside of a pipe organ. By the end of the concert, viewers will be intimately familiar with every contour of Young’s face and every fray of his hat.
The Massey Hall performance was chosen because it was a homecoming show for the Toronto native. Most of the action takes place onstage, while the rest follows Young as he drives a 1956 Ford Crown Victoria to the show. It’s 90 or so miles to the capital city from his childhood home of Omemee, Ontario -- “In the heart of Pigeon River Country” reads the town’s welcome sign. If the trip is supposed to have some deep meaning, it’s hard to find it. The entire drive can be summed up in a scene when Young surveys land next to the highway and says, “This doesn’t look anything like it looked before.” It’s hardly a revelation; more than a half-century has passed, after all.
Young shares funny stories from his youth, but this is far from an intimate portrait. The most fascinating scene is when Young retreats backstage before the encore and goes through a bizarre ritual during which he sucks the juice out of a lemon wedge, chucks the carcass in a trash can and repeats the process a few times before reemerging to finish the concert. It’s the only thing we really learn during “Journeys.” Places change and Neil Young is awesome -- we’ve known that for a while.
Contains brief violent images.