‘Journeys’: Tripping with Neil Young and Jonathan Demme

July 2, 2012

The first time, it was about creating a concert. This time, say Neil Young and Jonathan Demme, it was about capturing one. And doing it as faithfully – both visually and, more important, aurally – as possible.

That was the mission statement for “Neil Young Journeys,” the pair’s third film collaboration in documenting Young’s concert presence on film, which opened in limited release June 29. (2006’s “ Neil Young: Heart of Gold” was their first; “Neil Young Trunk Show” – 2009 – was the other.)

“This film was about this tour – about filming a live show inspired by all the shows on the tour,” says Demme, 68, the Oscar-winning director of “The Silence of the Lambs.” “With ‘Heart of Gold,’ it was staged for the movie. That show was never on tour. We had a costume designer and rehearsed it the way you would stage a show, with a visual script design for certain shots. It was completely handcrafted. This film was inspired by an existing show, with us coming in and filming it. We knew the magic a live audience gets – and we tried to figure out how to do that for a movie audience.”

For Young, the concerts – part of the tour to support his 2010 album, “Le Noise” – were a first for him. For the album, producer Daniel Lanois used various sonic and digital tricks to loop and otherwise turn his guitar sound into a wall that utilized pieces of the songs for the finished product. Young wanted to recreate that sound onstage; while he had given solo acoustic concerts in the past, “Le Noise” was an experiment in songs backed by solo electric guitar.

“Electric solo is something I’d never done,” Young, 66, says. “Solo electric guitar has a different character when it’s married to a hall with the right acoustic resources. I had prepared sound from the album, so it was bionic, but still organic. The sound was bigger than life.

“I wanted to do the new songs, but also songs from my life. So there were seven from that album and eight songs from my life. I thought they could tell a story. I tried to think of it more as a play than a concert, instead of being free-form.”

Sound is crucial to Young, who selects his performance venues based on those “acoustic resources”: “So the daunting thing about making the film was really being able to capture and deliver the sonic excitement of the live show,” Demme says. “Neil was always confident we could.”

In fact, the film is being shown in New York with high-resolution 96K audio: “I think sound is very important,” Young says. “It’s my pet project to make things sound better.”

The concert was filmed at Toronto’s Massey Hall – a new venue with the same name as a former theater where he recorded “Live at Massey Hall 1971.” Young smiles when it’s pointed out that, with only a couple of exceptions, the older songs in the film were ones he could have performed at that 1971 show.

“Yeah, that concert was like my coming-out party,” he says with a smile. “When I left Canada years earlier, the biggest gig I could get was maybe filling in for somebody who was sick. I thought I was good but I couldn’t find work. So when I came back and played there, that was kind of cool.”

Indeed, Young looks backward in the film, showing Demme around the small town near Toronto where he spent part of his youth. Those memories – the journeys of the title – are interspersed with the concert moments. The concert itself, shot by cinematographer Declan Quinn, concentrates on Young, whether focusing on his hands during a solo or staying on his face when he sang.

Quinn also incorporated a couple of tiny cameras strategically placed – one inside a pipe organ (for an intriguing arrangement of “After the Goldrush”), the other attached to the microphone where Young sang – to get a unique angle on the performance.

“It was this Chiclet-sized camera actually inside the microphone,” Demme says. “Declan was really excited to get, for the first time, a super-close-up of Neil singing with no mike in the shot.”

The best-laid plans, however, take new form when the unexpected happens, including a fleck of Young’s spittle landing on the lens itself, distorting the image.

“Yeah, the nut holding that camera got a little loose and so it tipped down, so it was a shot of Neil’s voice coming out,” Demme says. “I think it created a dramatic effect when he was singing ‘Down by the River.’ And then on ‘Hitchhiker,’ we had the saliva bead. That created a kind of psychedelic dimension that added to the song.”

Young, who has made films of his own (including “Greendale” and “CSNY/Déjà Vu”), says he and Demme have a horror of repeating themselves: “And you’ve gotta have fun,” Young adds. “Hey, what haven’t I learned from this guy? He’s got a good team and taught me how to pick a team and keep things positive. I’m still learning that.”

Young’s next project? Completing a documentary, “Lincvolt,” about his conversion of a 1959 Lincoln Continental to electric power – a film he’s been working on for several years and hopes to release in 2013.

“It performs really well – it gets 55 miles to the charge,” Young says of the car. “It’s 111 percent cleaner, with less greenhouse gas. I’ve been working on the film for five years. But anything worth doing, is worth doing for a long time.”

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