Demme shows once again he has heart, vision

Commentary

March 10, 2006|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Jonathan Demme, 62, is the positive Pied Piper of American cinema. It's no accident that the directors of the best independent movies of 2005, Phil Morrison (Junebug) and Bennett Miller (Capote), started out as interns for Demme. Over the course of 35 years, with movies as different as Melvin and Howard and Stop Making Sense, Demme has taught them and others that a film's scope depends on its vision, not its budget.

With his new performance film, Neil Young: Heart of Gold, Demme transforms the singer-songwriter's odyssey of an album, Prairie Wind - written and recorded when Young was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm and successfully treated for it - into a concentrated, engulfing vision of a hardy individualist confronting his own mortality and the confusions of life post-Sept. 11.

From his home base in Nyack, N.Y., Demme calls this movie "the closest I've ever come to making a Western."

Specifically, I suggest, a Sam Peckinpah Western, Ride the High Country or The Wild Bunch, full of weathered heroes brimming over with emotion. "I love that!" Demme exclaims in a characteristic explosion of enthusiasm. "When I was talking with Neil about putting this movie together, he told me I was going to love his band, because they look like rejects from a Peckinpah movie!"

Demme decided to film Young at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium on Aug. 18-19, 2005, only after "unhinged" brainstorming with wild notions such as "doing a performance against a blue screen and using a combination of home movies and archival footage to see what was going on in Neil's head." The concert format "evolved the more Neil talked about Nashville and I saw all the photographs of the Ryman with its great old backdrops."

Demme practices 100 percent organic moviemaking, sans sprouts. But he keeps three rules in mind when he makes a full-length music movie. "No. 1, it's got to have great music. No. 2, it's got to be presented in a really excellent way to justify people going to a movie theater. But No. 3, it's got to have one other dimension - something that turns it into a proper movie rather than just the record of a terrific musical event. For me, it was trying to capture Neil's dream state of mind when he wrote these songs."

He knew about that mind-set because he was in on Prairie Wind from the beginning. A collaborator with Young ever since he wrote a song for Demme's Philadelphia (1993), and a fan of his long before that, Demme, after the rigors of his 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate, called the singer-songwriter to see if he could catalyze a new music project. ("I was not ready to go back and do that whole laborious process of trying to mount a gigantic movie.")

Young and his team, "in an archival groove," floated the possibility of a three-part concert at Carnegie Hall, "getting back together as many of the Buffalo Springfield as they could for one 45-minute set, then doing an acoustic Nashville-y Harvest Moon kind of thing in the middle, and then a set with Crazy Horse [another Young band], maybe."

But by the time Demme "punched in again," Young had begun his new song cycle, Prairie Wind. "He started sending me lyrics, and he started describing things behind them." The key line for Demme was, "Trying to remember what my Daddy said."

"Neil told me that when he was a little boy, his dad told him about a lot of childhood places. But as so often happens with parents and children, he hadn't gotten around to taking Neil to all those places. Then his father came down with dementia. [`Daddy' died in June.] What Neil had in mind when he wrote these songs were images of places based on his memory of his father's memories - places Neil understood now he'd never get to see. This is so abstract but also so touching that it excited me more than anything else. It sowed the seed for a movie that presents itself as a dream."

When Demme realized that doing Prairie Wind alone would result in a 55-minute movie, he called Young and asked, "Would you be open to an encore dimension?" Young was, but only if he could draw additional numbers from his Nashville songbook. As he put it all together in the cutting room, Demme was astounded at the double-edged effect Young classics had in their new context.

Even a refrain to a hit as familiar as "Heart of Gold" - "and I'm getting old" - took on a stabbing immediacy. Demme found himself surfing on pure feeling in the editing. "I swear to God, I was having a weird physiological thing. `Harvest Moon' always makes me think of `Moon River,' one of the great old American songs from anyone and any time; `Harvest Moon' is right there, and it makes me go, `Gosh, Neil can really write a beautiful song.' Then I'd hear the chords of `Heart of Gold' when I haven't even recovered from `Harvest Moon' yet. My body is saying, `I don't want another wave of emotion, because I'm still dealing with the other one!' And then `Old Man' comes in right on top of that, and I'm giving in: `OK, go ahead, wash right over me.'"

Demme suggested that Young do some brief spoken intros. "Neil got into the head-space he used to be in when he was playing solo in tiny coffeehouses, where you need to say a little something." Demme also did some mild rearranging of the numbers, including cutting one Prairie Wind song that sounded too zany (this salute to Elvis, "He Was the King," will be on the DVD). In serving Young's music, he refreshed himself.

Young's hymn "When God Made Me" poses a series of questions including, "Was he planning for all Believers/ Or those who just have faith?/Did he envision all the wars/ That were fought in his name?" It made Demme think, "This movie is so patriotic, and so unlike a certain kind of patriotism stuck in our faces for so many years now. I feel as if we're saying, `Now it's Neil Young's turn; this is what it means to be an American.' I just love it."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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