From the Vaults: Jonathan Demme's Music Docs

Neil Young, Talking Heads, Hitchcock, & the one that got away

Jonathan Demme at SXSW 2009
Jonathan Demme at SXSW 2009 (by Jana Birchum)

If Jonathan Demme’s new documentary Neil Young Journeys sounds familiar, that’s because this is the third time the Oscar-winning filmmaker has made a movie about the iconic rocker.

This latest concert doc chronicles Young’s show at Massey Hal in his native Ontario. Of the trilogy of films, the Chronicle’s Marjorie Baumgarten had this to say:

“[A]s rapturous as it is for the many fans of the musician, it’s starting to sound a bit like a broken record. A very good record, mind you…”

Th collaboration began in 2006 with Neil Young: Heart of Gold. Baumgarten interviewed Demme and Young when the film played the 2006 Sundance Film Festival:

Jonathan Demme: “My love of Neil Young's music is part of my personality – a defining part of my personality. Musically, it turns me on like crazy. All his different idioms. And what he has to say turns me on like crazy. It's like a dream come true ... that I actually, somehow, snared this man into letting me make a movie with him is crazy. Crazy.” – See What They Do to You: How Jonathan Demme and Neil Young made a film about a concert attended by an audience of Nashville spirits (March 10, 2006)

A week later, Music Editor Raoul Hernandez gave the film 4 stars:

“In this sushi age of methamphetamine concert DVDs and dysfunction junction music tell-alls, Jonathan Demme dreams us back to the golden age of performance films.”

Frequent SXSW visitors, Demme and Young brought their next collaboration, Neil Young Trunk Show, to town in 2009. Baumgarten recapped the scene at the film’s world premiere at the Paramount Theatre.

Neil Young isn’t the only musical figure who’s caught Demme’s camera’s fancy: There is of course his seminal Talking Heads concert doc, Stop Making Sense, followed by 1998’s Storefront Hitchcock, about singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock. (You can read Russell Smith’s interview with Demme about the project here.)

And then there’s the doc that didn’t happen. In 2009, Chronicle editor Louis Black, a longtime friend of Demme’s, wrote about an early look at his work-in-progress, Bob Marley Stay With the Rhythm. Demme wasn’t the first filmmaker to try to mount a definitive Bob Marley doc – Martin Scorsese was first – and he wouldn’t be the last: Kevin Macdonald’s portrait of the reggae king was released this year. (Jay Trachtenberg interviewed the director in April.) Black’s enthusiastic reaction to the work-in-progress makes one wonder what might have been:

“…Demme's eye is on a greater prize. Bob Marley Stay With the Rhythm is an evocation, a celebration, and a prayer. The film is not just about Bob Marley – though it tells of the man, his music, religion, country, family, history, and people – but it is out of him.

“After the screening, Demme joked that they had seriously considered using ‘A Film by Bob Marley’ as a credit but didn't. No problem, as Marley's authorship of the film is as obvious as Demme's.”

Neil Young Journeys opens in Austin today. See Film Listings for review and showtimes.

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From the Vaults, Jonathan Demme, Neil Young, Neil Young Journeys, Storefront Hitchcock, Bob Marley, Bob Marley Stay With the Rhythm, Neil Young Trunk Show, Neil Young: Heart of Gold

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