“Old man, take a look at my life/I’m a lot like you were . . . ” The young hippie who wrote those lines turned 60 last November. Few popular singers have been as mindful of their legacy as Neil Young, nor as indifferent to the expectations of fans, critics, or record labels. In the 1980s Geffen famously sued him for producing records “unrepresentative” of himself, but representing himself is what Neil Young is all about. “Take a look at my life” might be his mantra.
Endlessly prolific and intermittently prodigious, he has released four original albums, a live disc, an independent film, and a greatest-hits collection since the turn of the millennium. Diagnosed with a potentially fatal brain aneurysm last spring, shortly after the death of his father, Young flew down to Nashville and wrote and recorded the songs for Prairie Wind in the four days before his surgery. Post-op, he picked up the phone. “I’m taking a year off and I’d like to make a movie,” he instructed Jonathan Demme. (“That’s the kind of vacation I like to take too,” Demme claimed at Sundance.)
Recorded at the first public performances of Prairie Wind, August 18 and 19 at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium (erstwhile home of the Grand Ole Opry), Neil Young: Heart of Gold recaps and effectively mythologizes this nugget of modern folklore in brief interviews with Young and a band of old reliables, including Spooner Oldham, Grant Boatwright, and Ben Keith.
Plaintive and valedictory, Prairie Wind unfolds as a testament: Almost all the songs default to the first-person singular, and judging by Young’s simple, straightforward intros, he means them to be understood as such. “Here for You” is dedicated to a daughter who has left home. “Far From Home” is about the right resting place, and “This Old Guitar” is a tribute to the instrument he “inherited” from Hank Williams and will pass on in turn one of these days. Mortality and remembrance are abiding themes; abiding is another.
Training eight Super-16 cameras and a Steadicam on the show—and none on the audience—Demme reflects the simplicity of the songs’ acoustic country arrangements in a languorous lexicon of slow dissolves and close-ups. DP Ellen Kuras gets her shots (Young and Emmylou Harris spotlit centerstage, the auditorium a sea of shadow before them), but the stitching is befittingly ragged.
Canvas backdrops, spartan but expansive, depict the interior of a log cabin fit for giants, a wide-open prairie, or the elongated stained-glass windows of a church. It’s the heartland writ large, and the 49th Parallel might as well not exist. Young himself cuts a big, brooding figure in a gray suit, a Stetson crammed low over his eyes. In a flamboyantly mundane bit of staging, guitar tech Larry Cragg picks up a broom and sweeps accompaniment to “Harvest Moon,” one of the evocative back-catalog selections from the film’s second half.
It’s a sentimental show, sure, but Young’s pantheistic hymns to family, friendship, and “the time we share together” are nothing if not heartfelt. Turns out it’s better to fade away after all. And as the movie’s title acknowledges, old Young is not done yet. The opening lines of “Heart of Gold” promise more to come: “I want to live/I want to give.”