No director approaches the subject of music, and the players who make it, with more respect and understanding than Jonathan Demme. Demme made one of the most mesmerizing of all rock concert documentaries — the 1984 Talking Heads feature, “Stop Making Sense” — and he directed one of the most likeable, too, with the 1997 “Storefront Hitchcock,” a chronicle of a typically rambling show by the lovably eccentric English singer Robyn Hitchcock. He has also shot videos for Bruce Springsteen and the Feelies, and in 1991, the year Demme won an Oscar for “The Silence of the Lambs,” he also produced an album called “Konbit,” which is a compilation of Haitian music, in which he’s something of an expert.
In 1994, Demme shot a short in-the-studio film about Neil Young and his band, Crazy Horse, called “The Complex Sessions.” (Young had been nominated for an Oscar himself for the title song he wrote for Demme’s 1993 AIDS movie, “Philadelphia.”) So when the director got back together with his old friend to film two concerts that Young performed in Nashville last August, the result was pretty much guaranteed to be an unusually affecting film. And it is.
Last year was a turbulent period for Young. In March, the then-59-year-old singer was diagnosed as having a brain aneurysm, which was successfully removed (not a moment too soon) during an operation in a New York City hospital. Between the diagnosis and the operation, new musical ideas had begun coming to him, so he had flown to Nashville, begun writing songs in a studio, and gathered together some of the city’s most celebrated session musicians to record them. These songs — reflections on mortality and reminiscences of times long gone — now make up the bulk of Young’s new album, Prairie Wind.
In June, Neil’s father, the noted Canadian sportswriter and author Scott Young, died at the age of 87. On August 19, Young debuted his new songs in two concerts at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry. (The Ryman, a venue built entirely of wood, is prized for its warm acoustics. “It’s like a big guitar,” Young says.) Demme filmed both shows, and the resulting picture is a loving contemplation of the magic of live musical performance.
“Heart of Gold” isn’t quite like any other concert movie. There are no frantic edits, no showy montages, no swooping pans across a cheering audience. (In fact, the audience isn’t even shown.) The picture was shot entirely with long-range lenses, which means there were no cameramen scurrying around the stage to distract the musicians. The performances move forward in long, serene takes, and the result is a film that focuses completely on the playing and singing. The musicians’ empathic interaction is revelatory.
There is a trio of backup vocalists in the ensemble (including Young’s wife, Pegi), and three horn players, and a string section that includes six Stradivarius violins. (More resonant wood.) A gospel choir, the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, also chimes in occasionally. For the most part, though, we are watching a band, composed of incredibly fine musicians, that is effortlessly working together, warmly responding to one another’s playing like the old friends they actually are. We see the great Spooner Oldham, a grizzled presence on piano and organ, and he doesn’t seem to be doing anything — there’s no body language. But when we listen carefully (the sound mix is gorgeously detailed), we hear his rich chord inversions and his subtle, almost off-hand fills, and we realize the song wouldn’t be anything like the same without him. This would also have to be said of drummer Chad Cromwell, who crisply hits every rhythmic accent without once overplaying, and of the bassist, Rick Rosas, who (you really have to see this) anchors the entire sound playing solely, and very simply, with his thumb.
The band is led by the steel guitarist Ben Keith, who first played with Young more than 30 years ago, on the singer’s Harvest album (which was also partly recorded in Nashville). Keith doesn’t seem to be doing much either (Demme says he looks at some points like he’s nodding off), but his sliding chords move through the music with intuitive finesse, and when he steps in for a solo, it’s a compact, slashing marvel that would leave most six-string guitarists slack-jawed.
Young himself is playing his 1941 Martin D28 — a guitar that once belonged to Hank Williams, who used to play it in this very building. (“I’m glad to see it back here,” the singer says, lifting a hand toward heaven.) He seems relaxed and happy, but as he makes his way through haunting new songs like “When God Made Me” and, especially, “Falling Off the Face of Earth,” you know he’s experienced some things recently that have left a mark that will never be erased.
He does a number of older songs, too (“I Am a Child,” “Harvest Moon,” a cover of Ian and Sylvia’s “Four Strong Winds”), and they fit right in with the set’s sometimes elegiac tone — in particular, a solo rendition of the brilliant, mournful “The Needle and the Damage Done.” If some of this sounds like heavy going, it never is — the music is infused with a spirit that’s unmistakably related to rock and roll. (Young actually power-chords a banjo at one point, to remind you of what a genius he is.)
The performances so beautifully captured in this movie are a glowing embodiment of American vernacular music — strains of country, folk and rock twine through the proceedings as if no borders of style or fashion had ever forced them apart. You come away from the picture feeling as if you’d learned something new about the wonder of music, and maybe the human spirit, too. There can’t be a much higher recommendation for seeing it.