It's been nearly three decades since Neil Young and Crazy Horse's first album, Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere,
came out, and that quintessentially American, purebred rock & roll band is still deep in the trenches, slogging through tour after tour and producing some of the most enviably balls-out music anyone's ever heard. Jarmusch's documentary on the Horse's 1996 tour is more of a historical marker than an actual history of the band, and as such it's of most relevance to the group's fans. Jarmusch, for whatever reason, doesn't dig too deep into Neil Young's checkered past -- the deaths of past members are mentioned in passing, and Crazy Horse's various problems with substance abuse and the like are brought up only once -- but despite that, or perhaps because of it, Year of the Horse
is a hell of a film; it cuts right to the savage heart of it all, thrusting the music center stage and leaving the rumors and anecdotes (most of them, anyway) to the biographers. That's as it should be. Neil Young and Crazy Horse have always been first and foremost about rock & roll, from Rust Never Sleeps
to Cinnamon Girl,
and Jarmusch gives us huge, unedited slices of the band's powerhouse rock; there are no short Crazy Horse songs. Shot in a combination of Super-8, 16mm, and Hi-8 video, the film deftly captures the chaotic, dangerous, ready-to-implode live vibe of the band on stage. Young, looking for all the world like the haggard godfather of grunge, his thinning hair waving in the breeze from stage fans, keeps himself center stage, punching out chords on “old black” and grinning at his bandmates. There's something magical about the combination of musicians that make up Crazy Horse (their sound, like some gargantuan, lumbering freight train rolling over sleepy, dreamswept hills, is utterly unlike anything else), and Jarmusch ably captures the essence of that magic in his live concert footage, although his attempts to draw the band out in backstage interviews are less than satisfactory. Still, trying to define what makes
the band function the way it does may be a task on par with defining the universe. It's enough that it works at all, so perhaps its best not to push the issue. Fans of Neil Young and Crazy Horse will doubtless revel in these lengthy concert scenes, and although occasionally the band's songs wander off into what appear to be impromptu jam sessions, Year of the Horse
is never boring. Jarmusch himself prompts the most hilarious behind-the-scenes dialogue, as he explains the Old Testament to Neil Young, leading to a brief exchange concerning the vengeful nature of God, which Young then likens to being on the road. It's a funny, caustic, innocent moment sandwiched between some of the most crunchy, shattering rock & roll I've ever heard, and sitting there on the tour bus, Young's drooping lizard eyes tell us he's already been there, done that, and lived to rock another day.