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‘Heart of Gold’ is a superb concert flick

Demme strips all the gimmicks away and lets Young’s music do the talking
/ Source: The Associated Press

Most concert films look alike. The panoramas of the band and crowd from the back of the theater. The cameras slowly panning, cameramen skulking about and getting in one another’s shots. The big finish with the headliner and 109 special guests all wielding guitars, looking like gangsters about to machine-gun each other down.

The cutaways to the fans in the 37th row of the balcony, pumping their fists in the air and screaming that falsetto “wooh!” noise that even the smartest among us gets sucked into making when herded together with other adoring spectators.

All that is missing in Jonathan Demme’s superb “Neil Young: Heart of Gold,” and it’s what isn’t there — the usual gimcracks and doodads of a filmmaker imposing needless stylistic flourishes — that makes the film so special.

Demme puts Young, some longtime musical companions and a terrific batch of old and new songs at center stage, then maintains the focus solely on those harmonious ingredients.

We hear but never see the audience at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium, where Young premiered the tunes of his latest album, “Prairie Wind,” last August, with Demme on hand to document it over two nights.

The Academy Award-winning director of “The Silence of the Lambs” applies a painter’s eye to his shot compositions, framing Young, Emmylou Harris and other guests in classy tableaux. Demme’s cameras beautifully capture the rich stage backdrops created for the shows and the lush colors of the performers’ costumes, which range from rootsy to elegant.

The cameras are mostly fixed, not roving eyes but up-close observers whose images leave you feeling as though you’re sitting in the front row of a grand old arena, with Young and friends singing solely to you.

Everything about the production serves to complement and flavor intimate performances from Young at his country-tinged best, singing, playing and conversing with gusto after recovering from surgery early in 2005 to correct a potentially fatal brain aneurysm.

Young wrote and recorded most of the 10 songs on “Prairie Wind” while awaiting surgery, uncertain if he would live to make another album. The tunes hark back to the comforting, contemplative acoustic sound of his classic records “Harvest” and “Harvest Moon,” the songs inspired by reflections on mortality, his family, his father’s death, his own musical legacy.

“Heart of Gold” is divided much the way Young apportions live shows when he’s focusing on fresh material, such as his “Greendale” multimedia extravaganza that put the new stuff up front, the old classics in an extended encore.

Nine of the “Prairie Wind” songs make up the first part of “Heart of Gold,” Young proving deeply, movingly introspective on such tunes as “It’s a Dream” and “When God Made Me.” Before “This Old Guitar,” Young notes that the well-worn six-string he’s playing belonged to Hank Williams and that he was happy to have it back again at the Ryman, the site of the original Grand Ole Opry.

Young then rolls into killer renditions of such familiar songs as “Heart of Gold,” “Old Man,” “Old King” and Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds.”

The accompanists continually shift, with Harris, Young’s wife, Pegi, a 10-member chorus and other singers backing him up, along with horns, a string ensemble and such pals as Ben Keith on steel guitar and Spooner Oldham on bass.

Young is not only a great musician in “Heart of Gold” but also a wonderful storyteller. He offers eloquent, expressive introductions to some songs, his preludes tinged with happy-sad recollections and amusing asides whose warmth elevates them far above the usual between-song patter.

And as he nears the big finale, Young offers a great wisecrack, surveying the long, long line of friends stretching across the stage, all slinging guitars, and asks, “Is there a guitarist in the house?”