Mark Metcalf
Moving Pictures

“Neil Young Journeys”

Neil Young returns to his hometown in Jonathan Demme's documentary, opening Friday at the Oriental Theatre.

By - Aug 16th, 2012 09:00 am
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photo: Declan Quinn (courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

I often say that when Beethoven died I stopped paying attention to popular music. It’s meant to be funny, but like most good funny it comes from the truth. I really have not been very interested in popular music since I was able to reach the dial on the radio. I paid attention to the Beatles because everyone else did. I listened to Pat Boone because no one else did. Being different seemed to be important. In high school I preferred the music of Sam Lay and James Cotton, John Coltrane and Miles Davis. In college I spent a lot of time with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and their album East-West. I liked Janis Joplin and did some swaying back and forth to Creedence Clearwater Revival and Blood, Sweat and Tears. I did a number with John Sinclair and some of the MC5 in a van in Ann Arbor but that was only because the dope was good not because I liked the music. And even though I think Bob Dylan may be almost as good as it gets, I never got into Neil Young. Didn’t dislike him, just never really listened to it. Jonathan Demme‘s documentary, Neil Young Journeys, was really more of an introduction than a revisiting.

It’s a film that will appeal primarily to fans. Concert footage of a solo concert in Massey Hall in Toronto, an easy drive from Young’s hometown of Omemee, Ontario, is inter-cut with film of Young driving around Omemee telling stories about his youth, following his older brother to the concert venue. It is a simple, homey, very natural access point to the man’s life and to the source of his music and his passion.

I think it is passion that raises Young and his music above much of the rest of popular folk rock, or whatever genre they are calling it at Amazon. His music has always been and even now, well into his sixties, is still deeply involved in the social and political action of the moment. As far as I can tell he doesn’t do a lot of “break-up songs.”

photo: Declan Quinn (courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Neil Young Journeys covers some old favorites and some songs written as late as 2010. The strongest cut for me was “Ohio,” which Demme intercuts with actual footage from Kent State University at the time when four college students, peacefully protesting a senseless and costly war were shot and killed by American soldiers in their hometown.

Americans killing Americans. Demme makes us remember and bear witness. He repeats the names of the dead several times. At this point in time, when so many people are waving the American flag over themselves and selectively remembering only the good moments, it is important to actively remind ourselves that there is much to be ashamed of, horrible mistakes have been made as we have been celebrating ourselves and patting ourselves on the back. There is special resonance now as the longest war in U.S. history continues and few if any stand up to protest it.

Neil Young Journeys opens Friday, Aug. 17, at the Oriental Theatre.

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