Concert films became more common as MTV (and later, DVDs) grew more popular. They used to be reserved only for the biggest stars; now it's rare to find a band that hasn't shot a concert. But that doesn't make all concert films equal. Anyone can point a camera at Journey while the music plays. It takes talent to make a concert film a film.
Enter Jonathan Demme, whose 1984 Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense took the form to a place that its predecessors (with the possible exceptions of The Last Waltz) had only suggested. Namely, he took it to the stage, putting viewers close enough to see the sweat drip off David Byrne's brow, but maintaining just enough distance that it looked like art. The shots seemed composed but the action spontaneous, a balance that few directors ever find. Demme repeated the trick on a much smaller scale with the little-seen but priceless Robyn Hitchcock feature Storefront Hitchcock. With Neil Young: Heart Of Gold, he more or less splits the difference, capturing a Young performance before a small crowd at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium.
Leading an all-star band that includes Emmylou Harris and soul legends Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, Young opens the film with a set from his unabashedly simple, sentimental 2005 album Prairie Wind, which he wrote and recorded shortly after receiving successful treatment for a life-threatening brain aneurysm. Fans expecting a career-summing meditation on mortality à la Bob Dylan's Time Out Of Mind were left wanting, but a more forceful album might have resulted in a less intimate film. Casting his subject in an autumnal glow, Demme again eliminates the space between artist and audience, and Young responds by performing without a whit of self-consciousness. He could be at the Ryman or in his own den—and one of the concert's backdrops simulates just that.
Wind's tracks about memory, loss, 9/11, the death of Young's father, and Young's own mortality set a mood later carried on by a set of songs from throughout Young's career. He sounds simultaneously wary of death and newly aware of how sweet life can be. It's hard to film icons like Young as anything but icons, but Demme's film gets past the legend, zooming in on Young's aged, heroic face and finding an artist as human as the rest of us.