Getting too close to Neil Young

’Neil Young Journeys’ is perversely raw and lazy

After the blitz of TIFF’s opening weekend, many of the A-list stars and visiting media junketeers have left town and you can already feel the air going out of the festival. Yesterday afternoon, I ran into TIFF CEO Piers Handling in front of the Lightbox, who was clutching a Boss bag (a fresh shirt as part of his sponsored wardrobe), and appeared remarkably fresh for someone who had lingered at a party until 3 a.m. His first late-night indulgence, he said. Before the festival, he’d told me that toughest part of his job was simply standing on his feet at endless receptions.

Me, I’ve been running between interviews and screenings, seeing more good movies about deranged men—notably Edwin Boyd, starring a magnetic Scott Speedman in the true story of the post-war bandit who robbed banks in face paint and became a Toronto legend, and Rampart, a moody L.A. crime drama fired by a blazing performance from Woody Harrelson as a dirty cop. In a sweeter vein, I’ve caught a couple of genuine crowd pleasers: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a charming romantic comedy from Lasse Hallström, and Undefeated, a documentary about a Memphis high-school football team of disadvantaged black kids and their white coach—The Blind Side meets Friday Night Lights.

I’ve also interviewed three stunning actresses, each projecting a formidable mix of intelligence, grace and beauty: Juliette Binoche (Elles), Emily Blunt (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), and Michelle Yeoh (The Lady). More on them in future posts. But one event that I was really looking forward to was Monday’s night’s premiere of Neil Young Journeys, followed by an onstage chat with Young and the documentary’s director, Jonathan Demme. There was tremendous excitement at the Princess of Wales Theatre as Young took his place in the audience, wearing the same white hayseed hat he wears onstage. Eddie Vedder was also in the house, though he had to leave midway through to play a concert. The previous night, Young had joined Vedder onstage at the ACC for a marathon version of Rockin’ in the Free World.

Neil Young Journeys was the final rock star doc premiering at TIFF—after From the Sky Down (U2), The Love We Make (Paul McCartney) and Pearl Jam Twenty. And it’s the third movie Young has made with Demme. But I’m sad to say it’s a disappointment. The first, Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006), was immaculately staged and shot. This one is perversely raw and lazy. And it shows how the lack of distance between filmmaker and subject can become problematic—quite literally in Demme’s use of gross, unrelenting close-ups of Neil’s grizzled jowls as he performs at Toronto’s Massey Hall. The concert climaxed Young’s solo tour to support Le Noise, the album he made with compatriot Daniel Lanois. Concert footage is intercut with snippets of Young driving his 1956 Ford Crown Victoria through southern Ontario on his way to Toronto, and revisiting his childhood home of Omemee. He offers droll bits of nostalgic whimsy (“This is where I stuck a firecracker up a turtle’s ass—my environmental roots don’t go that deep”), but as a slapdash portrait, it all feels coyly self-conscious.

As for the concert, there are stellar moments. Love and War sounds as vital and fresh as anything Young has ever written, and drew a predictable cheer from the hometown crowd—“Since the backstreets of Toronto/I sang for justice and I hit a bad chord/But I still try to sing about love and war.” The Kent State anthem Ohio has lost none of its urgency. You Never Call, a song about his late friend Larry Johnson, is heartbreaking.

Young’s yearning voice still unearths fresh emotional terrain in the upper register. But for much of the concert it was overpowered by guitar. For a solo show, the audio was insanely loud. Louder than an actual concert. In the onstage discussion afterwards, much was made of the killer sound system that had been installed in the genteel Princess of Wales theatre. “One of our big concerns,” said Demme, “is whether we’d be able to deliver the visceral element of the sound.” Well, they got that right. It went up to 11.

Demme went on to explain that this is the first movie ever to deliver audio in 96 kHz, instead of 48 kHz. It’s also the first time I’ve felt my pant legs flapping to the bass thrum of an E-string on an acoustic guitar. Demme’s doting close-ups were also annoyingly magnified, especially an extreme mug shot from a tiny camera pasted to the microphone stand—at one point, the lens became obscured by a gob of Neil’s spit, a happenstance of visual distortion that Demme raved about during the onstage discussion as if it were pure psychedelic genius.

Young talked about how he couldn’t get arrested when he was trying to make his career in Toronto. “I was a complete failure here. I couldn’t get a job in this place. But I had a good time trying.” And as he explained how he attended three schools in one year in Toronto, the Q & A session turned into a gothic high-school reunion, with one former schoolmate after another taking the floor—including a certain Mary Ellen. “We were in Grade 4 and I won a coin toss,” he explained after a woman with short grey hair stood up to greet him. “My prize was this great . . . thing. I really had a crush on Mary Ellen so I gave her this thing. It was a dog collar.”

Asked if Down By the River was based on “an actual incident,” he said, “No, that was based on an actual dream about a real incident.” Stay tuned for more Neil memorabilia. The compulsive archivist says he he is taking  a break from music to write his memoirs. And he’s just completed an 105,000-word tome tentatively titled Cars I Have Known. Can’t wait for Demme to make the movie