The heart of any concert movie is the concert itself, and in the case of Neil Young Journeys, it’s a great one. At the opposite end of the spectrum from Heart Of Gold’s airless elegance, Journeys finds Neil Young alone onstage at Toronto’s Massey Hall, captured with cameras so close that, at one point, a microphone-mounted lens gets coated with an errant glob of saliva. Although the solo approach usually lends itself to greater flexibility, Young played the same set every night on the 2011 tour supporting his album Le Noise, as if he were working toward a Platonic ideal rather than shooting from the hip.
As on Le Noise itself, the overcranked echo of Young’s distorted guitar dominates the songs, captured via Young’s trademark “PureTone” process. (For the film’s première, held in Massey Hall during last year’s Toronto Film Festival, Young trucked in his own sound system.) It’s fascinating to hear old chestnuts cut loose from their rhythm-section moorings, left to find new shapes or simply drift on a chord as thick and rough as a granite slab.
Journeys is Jonathan Demme’s third Young film—after Heart Of Gold and Neil Young Trunk Show, which was released to theaters but not to DVD—and his most intimate, keeping in mind that Young is a particularly guarded subject. The movie is structured around a car trip that revisits key locations from Young’s childhood home of Omemee, Ontario, but no one would mistake the driver’s seat of his car for a therapist’s couch. Demme is a sympathetic documentarian, but rarely a probing one, which is to say he gets close to Young without getting under his skin or inside his head.
Fortunately, Young’s performance is emphatic enough to be clear from the cheap seats. He stomps around the stage like a haggard visionary, his voice and guitar doubling back on themselves until it seems like they might be playing him. Journeys is the least polished of Demme’s Young documentaries, but also the most revelatory, precisely because it feels less like a message in a time capsule than like lightning in a bottle.