Neil Young and Jonathan Demme Q&A at Slamdance

Posted February 3, 2012 in ,
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Photo: Maya Adrabi/Samdance

It’s not often that music legend Neil Young makes a stop in the red-state of Utah. It’s even more unusual that the 66-year-old Canadian came to Park City for two days, and didn’t even pick up a guitar. As part of this year’s Slamdance Film Festival, Young joined Academy Award-winning director Jonathan Demme in a lively, two-hour Q-and-A with indie filmmakers and fans to discuss their latest film, Neil Young Journeys.

Having seen Young play live in Boise, Idaho and Reno, Nev., the Q-and-A wasn’t as exciting as one of his shows, but it offered rare insight into the minds of both Young and Demme. The two talked at length about their history together, future plans and their clashing views about certain aspects of the film and music industry. Although there was no music, the two-hour discussion was captivating and delivered a great show in its own right. The free coffee was just an added bonus.

With questions coming from the audience, both Young and Demme were sincere in their remarks, voicing their opinions without any bullshit. The crowd was largely made up of filmmakers who appeared highly interested in what Demme had to say, but seemed just as amused while listening to Young. Oddly enough, the most interesting topics discussed were not even about the film itself, and at times, the two became involved in serious dialogue between themselves, as if there weren’t 150 people watching and listening.

One of the best discussions began when Demme praised the booming popularity of grainy YouTube videos. Young seemed agitated by the statement, and in contrast, voiced his disdain of the low-quality films, along with MP3s and CDs. It was great to hear Young’s thoughts on the subject, as he advocated the high-quality sound of the ‘60s and ‘70s, with analog recording and vinyl records.

As for the movie itself, Journeys made its U.S. premiere at Slamdance, and played to a sold-out crowd the day before the Q-and-A. “It’s kind of like a fantastic voyage inside the guitar,” said Young. Journeys is the third movie in a Neil Young trilogy Demme has directed, which also include 2006’s Heart of Gold and 2009’s Trunk Show. But what set Journeys apart from the other two films was its heavy focus on Young’s personal life. It was fascinating to watch Young, along with his brother, Bob Young visit his hometown of Omemee, Ontario, and recall childhood memories with keen detail. In one instance, Young admitted to shoving a firecracker up a turtle’s ass, blowing it to pieces. He cited the experience as a rough beginning to his environmentalism. Such scenes from the film shed light on parts of Young’s life never heard before. “It’s kind of a hybrid,” Demme said of the new film. “It’s getting more and more into a documentary, while still delivering an amazing performance film.”

Aside from the clips of Young driving and walking around his old neighborhood, the film also included intimate performances of him playing at Toronto’s Massey Hall last spring. Solo on stage, with nothing but his guitars, Young gave inspired renditions of classics, such as “Ohio” and “Down by the River,” but the film also debuted new songs, such as “You Never Call,” which talks about his longtime friend Larry “L.A.” Johnson, who died in 2010. The sound of Young’s guitar playing shook the theatre several times, and Demme’s unique style of shots helped emphasize the emotion. Thanks to a camera mounted on Young’s microphone, giving up-close shots of his face, the songs conveyed a deeper sense of meaning, as you could see the spit flying out of Young’s mouth at times. “It’s suddenly like you’re inside a band that’s playing, but there’s no band. You’ve been somehow magically zoomed in on a live performance. You’re only looking at one person, and you can’t hear anything else,” Young said.

When the Q-and-A came to a close, there was a feeling that something special had just taken place. It was an extremely rare opportunity to be inside the same room with the musician for two hours, without any music. Young will continue to make records and express his thoughts and feelings through them, but it was truly a-once-in-a-lifetime experience to see Young up close, and hear his words in person.

Photo: Maya Adrabi/Samdance