On his best album, 1978's Rust Never Sleeps, Neil Young famously asserted that it's better to burn out than fade away. But his surprisingly good new concert film, Neil Young: Heart of Gold, suggests the opposite: Maybe fading away is the way to go after all.
Crisply directed by Jonathan Demme (best known for The Silence of the Lambs but more relevantly the director of the classic Talking Heads concert flick Stop Making Sense), the elegiac Heart of Gold is a fantastically realized concert film.
Shot over the course of two concerts in August 2005 at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, Heart of Gold documents the "world premiere" of Young's most recent album, Prairie Wind, which was written and recorded in Nashville only days before Young went into surgery for a potentially fatal brain aneurysm.
Fittingly, the music on Prairie Wind -- gentle folk-rock in the vein of 1972's Heart of Gold, which was also cut in Nashville -- is meditative and personal, the sound of a 60-year-old man taking stock of his life.
I had my doubts about Heart of Gold going in: I'm a Young fan, but Prairie Wind is not among his very best records and I wasn't sure if I cared to watch him perform the album in its entirety, as the film promised. The concept seemed to assume a significance that Prairie Wind couldn't support. But Young and Demme pull it off.
The film opens with segments shot largely in the backs of cars and cabs as Young and his band drive through Nashville, presumably en route to the Ryman.
But Demme quickly gets to the concert itself, looking up at the stage from an audience viewpoint as curtains part and Young and his band launch into the album. Demme and cinematographer Ellen Kuras hold this shot for a few moments, then zoom in, introducing a vocabulary of tighter shots and different angles. The camera never leaves the stage again, not even for crowd-reaction shots, instead working its way into the music, following the flow of sound gracefully, underscoring every bass line or backing vocal.
The result is a case study in how to shoot a musical performance, an act of filmmaking that taps into the joy of collective musical creation. And this fits the tone and message of Young's music, which is about abiding rather than burning out, about a full life in the company of family and friends.
The final third of the concert moves past Prairie Wind into a batch of familiar "greatest hits" all in the same musical vein, songs like "Old Man," "I Am a Child," and, of course, "Heart of Gold." But it's a testament to both Young and Demme that these performances of familiar favorites are less captivating than the seemingly minor recent work that the film is meant to celebrate. Here's hoping Young has lots of music left in him. But if not, Neil Young: Heart of Gold would make for a fitting valedictory.