When rock icon Neil Young was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain aneurysm last spring, the grandfather of grunge and legendary singer/songwriter responded as only he could. In the weeks between the diagnosis and lifesaving surgery, he wrote and recorded Prairie Wind, a plaintive, cohesive song cycle of love, death, family and friends.
When Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme ("Silence of the Lambs," "Philadelphia") received an advance copy of the album, he was jolted into action.
"I went, 'Oh my God, this is a masterpiece!' " Demme said. "I called Neil and I suggested that we do something, anything, to give cinematic life to this great group of songs. Very quickly it started evolving into the fact that these songs are born out of Nashville, that their home is the Ryman Auditorium, the most beautiful, mother church of music in all of the country."
The two decided to stage and film a "dream concert" at the Ryman. The result, an amber-hued performance documentary, "Neil Young: Heart of Gold," stands out in a crowded field of Sundance music-doc premieres.
The film captures Young with a full stage of musicians, including longtime bandmates Rick Rosas, Ben Keith and Spooner Oldham, old friends like Emmylou Harris, plus the Memphis Horns and Fisk University Jubilee Choir. They performed 18 songs spanning Young's extraordinary career; alongside Prairie Wind tunes, Young played some of his most well-loved numbers, including "Old Man," "Heart of Gold" and a chilling solo performance of "Needle and the Damage Done."
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"When the curtains part," Demme said, "that's it. The musical journey begins. If people wandered in after the show had started, we want them to ask, 'When was this filmed?' With the quality of the music, the outfits that everybody was wearing, and the old-fashioned, beautifully expressive backdrops we had, it could've been filmed in the '30s."
"We wanted to make it a concert that treated every song like a scene in a film," Young said. "Every song had its own care and its own staging."
And in the Ryman, the fabled home of the Grand Ole Opry and host to legends from Hank Williams to Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline, Young and Demme had an additional, less-tangible contributor.
"I've heard about how great the Ryman is," Demme said, "but you've got to walk in the door and see this breathtaking room. It was a real church before it became the citadel of music. And not only is that visually interesting, but it brings all the ghosts and spirits to life in there."
"It's a very revered place," Young added. "So we were trying to pay homage to our roots and to our heroes: Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, George Jones and all those great songwriters who are at the heart of country music."
The film's conclusion, a rousing performance of "One of These Days," creates the distinct sense that the film is some sort of a love letter to Young's fans, and, as importantly, his bandmates, friends and family.
" 'Heart of Gold'" is really about the interplay between my family of musical friends, my family of songs and my immediate family," Young said. "That's what it's all about."
"And that's the best version of ['One of These Days'] I ever did," he concluded. "I'm glad it's on the film."
"Neil Young: Heart of Gold" hits theaters February 10.
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