Neil Young Journeys feels like an epitaph at first. Director Jonathan Demme sets a camera in the passenger seat of Young’s Crown Victoria, riding with the aging rocker as he tools around his Ontario hometown and tells a few youthful tales. Their destination is Massey Hall, a legendary Toronto concert venue where Young recorded a live solo show that was eventually released in 2007. Live at Massey Hall 1971 captured Young performing new and unrecorded songs to an enraptured audience, but there was no visual record of that show.
If Demme, a longtime collaborator of Young’s, isn’t trying to rectify that oversight, the choice of venue at least hits home for diehard fans of the grunge godfather. The film itself may not. Young starts out strumming on an acoustic, with the bass frequencies from his low strings emanating a wall-shaking rumble, for “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” from his 2010 album Le Noise. He reaches into the past for “Ohio,” adding a visual tribute to the four Kent State students shot and killed by National Guardsmen in 1970, and “Down By the River,” before delving back into Le Noise for a few more songs that sound like retreads of his classic material.
That’s where the problems begin. This is Demme’s third Neil Young concert film, and early on it seems, visually, to strive as high as Shine a Light, the Rolling Stones concert film in which Martin Scorsese used his powers to distract from the wear and tear rock ’n’ roll has taken on the band. And yet, Demme plants a camera on the mic stand so at one point he can present Young’s unshaven scowl in extreme close-up, blocking out the gorgeously lighted stage. It’s not a pleasant image, and with no reference to Young’s own past connection to Massey Hall, Neil Young Journeys begins to feel like an elaborate promo for Le Noise. MATT KELEMEN