Review of Neil Young Journeys

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This documentary takes its viewers along with Neil Young, who brought his solo tour to Toronto's Massey Hall, an iconic venue in the city of his birth.
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Movie Review: "Neil Young Journeys" --

Rating: PG (for language including some drug references, and brief thematic material)
Length: 87 minutes
Release Date: June 29, 2012
Directed by: Jonathan Demme
Genre: Documentary
Stars: 3 out of 5

Neil Young is rock-and-roll royalty, but he never once acts like an entitled king; the documentary "Neil Young Journeys" shows his natural humility with honesty and compassion. Director Jonathan Demme tagged along with Young during the last two days of his 2011 tour at Massey Hall in Toronto, and intersperses uncut concert footage with segments of Young driving around his hometown of Omemee, Ontario, in a 1956 Crown Victoria, making the film a very personal and introspective look into Young's life.

It's fitting that Young would pile into a '56 Crown Vic-it's from an older, different era, and just a little bit poignantly romantic, a feeling that is woven into Demme's entire look at Young and his old hometown. Young tells of his time growing up in Omemee, talking about the school named after his writer father, Scott Young, and reminiscing about a favorite fishing hole, as well as remembering how he was goaded by a young friend into eating tar. He also points out places where he had spent time in his youth that are now almost completely destroyed, bulldozed, and transformed. While the places of his past may be gone, it is clear that he will always remember. The movie is poignant and intimate, but it never veers into oversentimentality, just like Young's music.

The concert itself opens with Young's classic protest piece "Ohio," which was written about the 1970 Kent State shootings. The emotional resonance of the song is still felt today, especially when the filmed performance features the names and photos of the victims. "Love and War" is heart-wrenching when it shows photos of brides of servicemen killed in action, attempting to explain "why daddy won't ever come home again." It's painful and honest, exactly what Young's music attempts to embody.

Other songs that Young performs include pieces from his 2010 album "Le Noise," most notably "Sign of Love." He also delves into the well-loved tunes "Hey Hey, My My," "I Believe in You," and "Helpless." He regales his audience with "After the Gold Rush" and "Down by the River," and he even treats his audience to two previously unreleased songs, "You Never Call" and "Leia"-the latter having been written for a friend's baby girl. Young doesn't pick just the most classic and well-known songs to play for his audience; rather, he chooses a vastly personal assortment of old and new. Each song explores Young's captivating life experiences and shares his mesmerizing insights for the audience to identify with.

The concert footage itself does its best to feel as up close and personal as possible. The camera frequently focuses just on Young's face as he performs, having been mounted on his microphone. It's meant to create a feeling of intimacy with the artist, but it's easy to feel like it's almost an intrusion into the very personal moment of just a man, his guitar, and his personal feelings. At other times, Demme's directorial decisions can feel a little unclear, such as when a photo of Young's son, Ben, is shown during the performance of "You Never Call" with no context or explanation. Perhaps Demme believes that everyone has the deep, reverent knowledge of Young's life that he does.

Reverent is certainly what this documentary aims to be. It's clear how much Demme respects Young, from the way he lets Young's face take over the screen to his willingness to have Young say what's on his mind during the car ride through Omemee. Even during the concert footage, it's as though Demme doesn't want the audience to turn away for a second, as he uses a very minimal level of editing. By seeing Young in this way-showing a level of wistfulness for the home of his youth, performing by himself with no backup band, and sharing his deeply insightful and unnervingly authentic songs-the audience is encouraged to respect Young even more as a musician and as a man.

Now in his 60s, Young shows himself to be still a very vital and influential performer. He's grizzled. He's melancholy. But most of all, he's honest. With his songs' balance of wistfulness and wisdom, it's easy to see how he still inspires musicians. More than four decades into his career, Young is still the same raw and authentic performer that he has always been.