Neil Young: Heart Of Gold documents two nights of music courtesy of Neil Young and a few pals performed live at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, TN. Directed by Academy Award winner Jonathan Demme (of Silence Of The Lambs fame), it's an excellent piece that effectively captures the spirit and the rough beauty of Young's music with style and grace. No stranger to filming musicians (Demme had previously worked with The Talking Heads and New Order after he left Corman's fold but before he hit Hollywood pay dirt with Hopkins and Foster), Demme's film is simple enough to make sure that the music comes first but slick enough that it always looks good.
At the time that the movie was made, Young was touring for Prairie Wind, his latest record. He's joined on stage by Emmylou Harris who accompanies him on a duet for The Old Guitar, a highlight of the show, but for the most part this is almost completely his show regardless of how nice her voice sounds next to his.
Neil Young has always had an almost painful sincerity to his voice which has made his music very poignant and very powerful at times. Demme wisely allows this same unique voice to carry the film. While the performances were shot using a pretty high tech nine camera set up, it's rare that the movie feels over stylized or flashy, and more often than not the concert is shot in close up, allowing Neil's vocals to carry the performance rather than flashy editing or lighting tricks. That being said, some of the editing choices do result in some minor sound synch issues and if you pay attention you will probably notice them in more than a few spots. It's a shame that this couldn't have been corrected but it's part and parcel with shooting concert films with more than one camera sometimes.
One of the more interesting aspects of the concerts captured here are the set lists. After a few minutes of initial interview footage, the performance begins and we hear tracks from Prairie Wind first. The material here is very melancholy, dealing with some of the more unpleasant aspects of what happens to someone when age starts to catch up with you. In part, this is what Heart Of Gold is all about. While the lyrics of the newer material might not have the anger or the bite that some of his better known sixties and seventies output has had, they're still important in the context of the times, Young makes sure of that. His music has grown old with him, but he remains an important artist and one who, as evidenced by his recent Living With War record isn't afraid to call it as he sees it. This material seems to be both perceptive and reflective, and it feels as if it is very personal to the man who is singing it.
From there Neil brings it back to material from both Harvest and the follow up to that classic, Harvest Moon, both of which are a fair bit different from Prairie Wind in both sound and content – the constant between all of this material, as varied as it is, be it acoustic or electric, is the singer himself, and from that point on he changes up the set list a fair bit. Young's voice remains strong and unusual but not unpleasant. It's strained at times but not painfully so, more like sincerely so, he sings it like he feels it and he means it and throughout it all he remains very calm and very casual. He plays most of the material in a grey suit and a white brimmed hat, looking very cool and easy going, playing some songs standing, other sitting with his guitar or at the piano. The backing band sounds great behind him, but they not to try and overpower him, and he remains the focal point of the film as he should, particularly as he goes through many of his more popular tracks in the later half of the performance.
Between songs, Young tells stories in that strange, rambling way he has about him. He tells us of a guitar that he plays that once belonged to the late Hank Williams (who was an obvious influence on him) and he tells us of the old caretaker who worked on his farm who inspired him to write Old Man, one of his best known songs. In the end, it doesn't do anything new or provide us with anything that Neil Young hasn't really given us before, but that's really part of its charm. Young is a rare constant in the tumultuous world of pop music and even when he's experimenting he's still Neil Young. Heart Of Gold is as good a document of what the man brings to the stage as any thing else out there, and it stands as an interesting and oddly personal look at a man who has been pouring his heart and soul into his music for decades now.
The anamorphic 1.85.1 widescreen transfer presents the movie in its original aspect ratio and with a few minor quibbles it comes up looking pretty strong. Concert videos often don't look so hot due to the stage lighting and camera positioning but thankfully Heart Of Gold doesn't suffer the way that so many live performances do. Color reproduction is strong and while there are some times where the action on the stage gets a little muddy looking from lighting but thankfully this only happens occasionally and the norm for this release is a very detailed and colorful image with plenty of both foreground and background detail. Skin tones look good, black levels stay strong and while there is some shimmering from time to time it isn't over powering. Mpeg compression artifacts are never a problem and edge enhancement isn't ever too noticeable either. Paramount has definitely done a nice job on the picture for this release even if it is a bit soft in spots.
Paramount has given this release 5.1 Surround Sound mixes in both Dolby Digital and DTS format with a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track thrown in for those unequipped to handle either of the 5.1 formats. Closed captioning and subtitles are available in English only.
Fans should be very pleased wit either of the 5.1 offerings and there isn't a whole lot of difference between the two save for the fact that, as you might expect, the lower end on the DTS track is a little bit stronger. Both tracks sound very good on this disc, with some very nice, distinct channel separation present throughout the performance where you'll pick up on audience reaction behind you as the music comes at you from the front of the set up. Dialogue during the interview segments is clean and clear and free of any hiss or distortion. Bass response is strong and lively from start to finish and the levels are very well balanced ensuring that the mix stays clear and succinct.
With all the audio options on the first disc, Paramount have wisely decided to put the bulk of the extra features for this release on a second DVD. In fact, aside from menus and chapter stops, the only extra on disc one is a bonus performance in which Neil plays He Was The King, a song he wrote about Elvis. It's a nice piece and a good recording.
The second disc starts off with six in-depth featurettes that relate to the concert that are titled as follows:
Fellow Travelers is a twelve and a half minute segment in which director Jonathan Demme talks about how he was inspired to film Neil Young in concert and why he wanted to document the show in Nashville. He talks about Young's influence and why he likes his work and explains how the project came together.
The second featurette, Cruising With Neil, is a question and answer/interview segment conducted with Neil Young by Demme. Young sits in an old car and fields questions about his career for roughly eight minutes. This is a nice little segment and it's kind of interesting to hear Young's take on the project.
These Old Guitars is a brief three minute segment in which Neil Young's personal guitar technician shows off some of the guitars from Young's collection and explains what they're used for and why.
Cruising With The Players is similar to Cruising With Neil in that it's Demme interviewing Young's band-mates and Harris in an old car, asking them questions about their work with Neil Young and their take on his output and career.
Finishing Touches is a rather technical piece on which sound mixes were used, how Neil Young and his guys tweaked things a little bit after the show was done, and how Demme used the final mix in the finished version of the movie.
Finally, Warming Up With Neil And The Jubilee Singer shows Neil basically instructing a college music class on how to warm up and prepare for a performance.
Also included on the second disc is a lengthy documentary entitled The Rehearsal Diaries which is narrated by director Jonathan Demme himself. This is split up into three different sections: Soundcheck Studies in which we see Young and company testing out their playing ability and warming up for the tour; The Ryman Auditorium in which we learn about the venue; Day Of The Performance in which Demme shows us everyone practicing and getting geared up to hit the stage. This is a pretty interesting look at how this project was put together over a ten day period with input from Demme and Young which gives us a look at both sides of the production. The result is a very worthwhile piece that does a fine job of explaining what efforts were required and delivered to bring the filming of the two shows to completion.
Last but not least is an excellent little treat for fans entitled Blast from the Past - The 1971 Johnny Cash Show Performance in which Neil shows up on the late man in black's variety show and performs The Needle And The Damage Done. It's only the one track but he's in fine form here and this is an excellent example of how good he can be.
Neil Young fans already know that this two disc set from Paramount is an essential purchase but even casual fans of the man or anyone who just enjoys a good musical performance really ought to give this one a shot. Paramount has done a very good job with the audio, the video and the extra features and the content holds up and has a lot of replay value as well. Neil Young: Heart Of Gold comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.