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
Neil Young and Jonathan Demme were bouncing sentences off each other like an old, familiar couple. They had been conducting interviews all day after the world premiere of their new film, Neil Young: Heart of Gold, at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The film documents a performance of the entire suite of songs from Young's latest album, Prairie Wind, which had been filmed by Demme and his crew at Nashville's hallowed Ryman Auditorium over two nights last August. The music is a reflective song cycle that is certainly colored by Young's discovery prior to its writing and recording that he had a dangerous brain aneurysm and was to undergo surgery. The surgery was successful, and by January at Sundance, he was in good health and good spirits.
Demme and Young joined me and three other journalists for their last roundtable of the afternoon. Rather than seeming worn-out from the repetition, the two seemed fresh and eager to talk. Young's wife, Pegi, came into the room and joined our table, frequently nodding or laughing in agreement with something one of the men said. Demme, a seasoned pro in the art of concert films, having directed the features Stop Making Sense with the Talking Heads and Storefront Hitchcock with Robyn Hitchcock, in addition to filming scads of music videos, had also worked previously with Young. Young contributed the closing song for Demme's award-winning Philadelphia, and Demme directed the four-song Neil Young & Crazy Horse sessions from Sleeps With Angels. Soon they would be coming to Austin to present the film at SXSW and deliver the keynote conversation at SXSW Music.
"Ask me anything," Demme said expansively as our table came to order. "An-ny-thing," he repeated, drawing out each syllable.
"We promise to tell the whole truth," added Young.
Austin Chronicle: It seems like this is a work that clearly has two authors. Was there any point in the collaboration when you were poking each other's eyes out? But more important, is there something you can point to in the movie or the sound that each of you shaped, that expresses your personality or, best yet, expresses both of you?
Jonathan Demme: I wanna go first, OK? Everything that's said in this film just speaks so much to what I care about. It's as personal a film as I've ever made. And I love it. There are about three or four films that I've made that I can really say I love, and this is one of them.
AC: What are the others?
JD: Melvin and Howard. Philadelphia. My Cousin Bobby. The Agronomist. Films where it's just ... "Here it is!" You want to know what I care about? Watch them.
AC: What makes Neil Young: Heart of Gold so personal?
JD: The fact that I've heard everything he's ever done, from the moment he did it from Buffalo Springfield on. 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.
Neil Young: [Chuckles]
AC: Was the impetus yours to get the movie going?
JD: I kept hounding him. I kept calling up his partner Elliot Roberts, and saying, "Does Neil need a video?" or "If Neil would like to do anything that involves film, and if I can help in any way ..."
AC: Did you get the movie momentum from your last album and movie, Greendale?
Neil Young: Well, it's a developing thing that's been going on for a long time. But I haven't made that many films. I've made maybe five or six. But it's been over a period of about 35 years. So, I've been taking my time.
Greendale was a definite step into an area that I hadn't gone and was developing more. When Jonathan called the first time, I didn't really have anything that I was doing. But the second time, I had just almost finished recording Prairie Wind. And I sent him all the lyrics and said, "Check these out. See what they do to you." Then he responded to the lyrics, and I sent the music next. Then we started talking about, "C'mon down to Nashville, check this out." I couldn't have done this record anywhere else. Let's check out the people in the band, they're real characters. I love these guys. Check out the instruments we use. It's Hank Williams' guitar. The analog recording the "Renaissance" recording technique we were using instead of what we have today. And all of the things that we were doing that were different, that make this happen, aside from the content of the music.
We talked about that, and we talked about the Ryman as being the place where we could do the performance that would be right with what we had. Then we talked about the background. Whether we were going to go to Canada and do a lot of shooting around these places where my family came from, northern Manitoba and stuff. We went through all the history, and we were talking a lot about architecture and how buildings were being torn down, and how people were gonna be sorry about what they were doing when they realized that everything is so temporary. We talked about all these themes that were running through the music. And, finally, we settled on just doing a concert in a time period. Kind of like a period piece, and re-creating something that was paying homage to the traditions of country (and the Ryman in particular), and all of my great heroes songwriters of yesteryear.
AC: Do you feel like your feature film work influences the way you film a concert and the way you do a concert video?
JD: Definitely. 'Cause I feel like in Neil Young: Heart of Gold it's not a band, it's a bunch of characters. It's a bunch of friends who have gathered in this location, which happens to be the Ryman. And we go from scene to scene. And it's very important for me that their personalities emerge as much as possible. That whatever actions and skills they're involved in are honored so we can be appropriately impressed with what they're doing. It's vital that their relationships become more and more evident, or you're not going anyplace. And, in fact, Neil and Pegi's relationship I love the way that just sneaks into the movie. Finally, they're swaying next to each other singing "Comes a Time." It's just amazing. The power of the close-up, I think, was the big difference here. But that's what I love to use in the other ... talking, fictional movies.
AC: Was the power of the close-up part of the decision not to use any audience shots and go to blackouts at the end of each song?
JD: I thought it was vital that the movie audience be made to pay attention to the words, pay attention to whatever emotional experience Neil was having as he communicated this stuff. So, I thought "I'm not going to cut a lot, we're going to let people get lost in the moments. We're not going to move the camera around for that sort of generic energy that a camera move brings, which ultimately doesn't take you anywhere and gets drained of any energy because repetition nullifies that. [Cinematographer] Ellen Kuras is going to light it up beautifully. We're going to pick really great angles that favor Neil and his expressiveness, favor the relationships. We can tie everybody in together and let it rip."
AC: How involved were you in preproduction?
NY: I was completely relaxed that Jonathan was going to do the right thing. Then I could just relax and concentrate on what I do, although we talked about everything in detail before. We talked about how it was going to look, and every song we treated differently, like a new set. Every song has a completely different staging. The microphones all move, everything moves. That's one of the subtleties. Jonathan, Ellen, and I all worked on the staging, presenting each song individually so that each one had a chance to breathe and be treated as an individual on its own, an individual scene of the story. We took a lot of time with the little things. An incredible amount of time. And it's really not a concert film where we're documenting a concert. It's a film. The story is a concert, and that's where the story is told during the concert. It's a film, not a document.
And then there's another audience, the spirit audience, the ghost audience that is from the Ryman Auditorium, who knows what year. They're there. That's what really melds the whole thing together. You don't see them, you feel them. And they're interacting with the audience. It's like a live jam. The two audiences are making noises together.
Neil Young: Heart of Gold opens theatrically in Austin on Friday, March 17, at the Arbor Theatre. Look for the review in next week's Film Listings.
Neil Young: Heart of Gold
Thursday, March 16, 4:30pm, Paramount
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