Heart Of Gold

Neil Young

Neil Young’s career becomes more profound, more important, and more fabled with each passing year. The singer/songwriter’s output of late has been particularly alluring in its depth and craftsmanship — beginning with his post 9/11 release, 2002’s Are You Passionate?, followed by the plaintively ambitious concept album and film from 2003, Greendale. He spent over a year touring behind the latter, a full cast and stage production reenacting the story in his wake. The movie, a low-grade patchy affair, underscored Young’s boundless quirkiness.

But then things got heavy in early 2005 when he was diagnosed with a potentially deadly brain aneurysm. Even as he underwent treatment, Young continued to write and record Prairie Wind, one his most poignant and heartfelt efforts of the last 30 years. A concert film based around the album was directed by Jonathan Demme, enjoying a short, uneventful theatrical run in the early 2006. Six months later, Heart Of Gold is now available on DVD — just in time to temper the flare of emotions surrounding Young’s latest offering, the controversial Living with War protest album.

There’s a rare, stark beauty Demme creates around Heart of Gold. Much like Young himself, the film is an unwavering artistic achievement set in a simple framework. In the beginning, random glimpses of Nashville slowly close in on the subject. Young, his wife, friends, and supporting musicians all chime in on the events leading up to the concert. Once the show, staged at the legendary Ryman Auditorium (home of Grand Ole Opry), gets underway, the mounting anticipation gives way to picture-perfect performances in an interchangeable, impossibly pragmatic setting.

With pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith, a first-rate band featuring keyboardist Spooner Oldham and guitarist Grant Boatright, and a variety of backup singers — Young lunges forth into spot-on versions of “The Painter” and “No Wonder.” His candid recitals of “Falling Off The Face Of The Earth” and “It’s Only A Dream” are Oscar worthy, if only for their sustained sense of purity. Later in the program, Young, wielding Hank William’s old Martin D-28 acoustic guitar, is joined by Emmylou Harris for a truly chilling performance of “This Old Guitar” that will undoubtedly resonate within this writer’s memory block for years to come.

Prairie Wind in the rear view mirror, Young strips things down to himself, his acoustic, his harmonica and faithful readings of classics like “I Am Child,” “Old Man” and “The Needle And The Damage Done.” The band returns from time to time, unreeling the moonlit shuffle of “Harvest Moon,” seamlessly caressing the soul before falling effortlessly into “Heart Of Gold.” A band of acoustic guitarists, including Young, Harris and Young’s wife Pegi, take the evening down the homestretch with breezy singalongs of “Comes A Time,” Ian Tyson’s "Four Strong Winds" (also from the Comes A Time album) and “One Of These Days.” As the closing credits roll, Young sits on an empty stage, gently plucking out the heart-tugging lines of “The Old Laughing Lady” before fading into black.

Throughout, copious amounts of in-between-song banter find Young at his most earnest, regaling the audience with stories about himself and his family. For his part, Demme keeps his steady cams focused squarely on the musicians, avoiding the quick cutaways and flashy transitions of many concert films. Consequently, the atmospheric vibe is encapsulated as much by the film as it is by the performances. The DVD comprises two discs — one with the movie and a few extras, the other overflowing with bonus footage, interviews, rehearsals, mini documentaries, and a clip of Young performing on The Johnny Cash Show from 1971. This package of delight should keep Neil Young fans at bay for at least a few months until the prolific singer/songwriter breaks open with another musical adventure that will boldly go where no man and his guitar have gone before.

~ Shawn Perry

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