Jonathan Demme’s 2006 concert film Neil Young: Heart Of Gold captured the venerable musician on the heels of a brush with death. Young had just survived a brain aneurysm and released the quiet, contemplative album Prairie Wind, and the film surrounded him with family, friends, and longtime collaborators, all shot in pastoral tones in the intimate environment of Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium. It’s a quiet, respectful, beautiful-looking film, shot by Demme with great care, as if trying to preserve a delicate treasure. If Demme’s follow-up, Neil Young Trunk Show, has a mission statement, it’s “Fuck all that.”
Filmed over two nights during Young’s 2007 tour behind the Chrome Dreams II album, Trunk Show takes a rough-and-tumble, point-and-shoot handheld approach that mixes digital and 8mm footage. Trunk Show isn’t always pretty to look at, but the form suits the content. Though Demme does show a tour medic tending to a badly abused fingernail at one point, Young apparently feels much better. Here, he alternates solo, acoustic material with spirited full-band numbers, fronting a bunch of trusted collaborators—Ben Keith and Crazy Horse’s Ralph Molina among them—and feeding off the volatile chemistry of their shared instincts. Together, they’re loud and beautifully brutal, locked in grooves and lost in feedback.
Living up to its title and a subtitle that bills it as “scenes from a concert,” Trunk Show lays out an assortment of musical goods and wares without much comment. Some of it is familiar, and some is from deep in the catalog, including unreleased ’70s-era songs like “Mexico” and “Kansas.” (There’s even a performance of “The Sultan,” a local hit for Young’s teenage band The Squires.) Anyone not excited about seeing a crunching 20-minute version of the Chrome Dreams II track “No Hidden Path” should probably steer clear, though even those who are excited probably wouldn’t have minded a few more classics in the mix.
That said, Demme’s excitement for Young and his music is evident throughout, and the songs fit comfortably in the unvarnished setting. With Trunk Show joining the ranks of Year Of The Horse, Rust Never Sleeps, Greendale, and other concert films, Young is now one of the best-documented musicians out there. Trunk Show is a good document, though. It shows up, settles in, and lets the cameras roll, because sometimes the music needs little more than an audience willing to go where it will take them.