Director Jonathan Demme has always been fascinated by how music affects a person. Think of the members of Talking Heads beaming with pure joy as they performed in the 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, or the justly praised scene in the 1993 drama Philadelphia where Tom Hanks, shot in a tight close-up, loses himself in “La mamma morta,” an aria from the opera Andrea Chénier.
Knowing this might help explain the decision by Demme and cinematographer Declan Quinn to keep so much of Neil Young Journeys focused on the titular singer-songwriter’s face. In capturing a solo concert Young performed in 2011 at Toronto’s Massey Hall, Demme and Quinn keep the camera close, letting the 66-year-old musician’s mug move in and out of the center of the frame.
This shooting style gives you a chance to mull unabashedly over the jowls and stubble of Young’s face. More important, though, you get to appreciate how, even when performing “After the Gold Rush” or “Ohio”—songs he’s probably sung hundreds of times over—Young still loses himself within them. This is especially true of the extreme close-ups taken via a lipstick camera on the center-stage mic stand. It allows us to catch every sneer and smirk and, at one point, a bit of spittle right on the lens.
When the focus isn’t on Young and his performance, Journeys feels lost. The film’s framing device, a car trip from Young’s hometown of Omemee, Ontario, to Massey Hall, with Young providing droll commentary from the behind the wheel, is quickly hurried through and fails to take off. Demme also can’t help showing his political hand by intercutting footage of the Kent State shootings during Young’s spirited rendition of “Ohio.”
Even within the live footage, there’s a surprising restlessness to the film. Demme, a director whose best concert films (Stop Making Sense, Storefront Hitchcock) run solely on the energy coming from the people onstage, doesn’t seem to trust his subject enough here. Editor Glenn Allen abets this with quick jump cuts to overhead shots of Young onstage or footage of his tour bus idling outside the venue. But Demme is chief conspirator, wrangling in dizzying Super 8 shots of the audience and wobbly bits of hand-held work when simply keeping the focus on the man onstage would suffice. In spite of its title, Journeys works best when it remains still. PG.
Critic’s Grade: C
SEE IT: Neil Young Journeys opens Friday at Fox Tower.