Oscar®-winning director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs) never set out to make a Neil Young trilogy, yet Neil Young Journeys marks the third time the duo have collaborated on a documentary. Neil Young: Heart of Gold chronicled the singer’s two night performance in Nashville, a year after surviving a brain aneurysm, while Neil Young Trunk Show featured a performance stop in Pennsylvania during his ‘Chrome Dreams II’ tour.
While those documentaries were both planned, the same can’t be said for Journeys. In the fall of 2010, Jonathan Demme, the Neil Young fan, attended a show during the singer’s ‘Le Noise Tour’ in support of his most recent album of the same name. ”I was so moved after seeing it. For a very autobiographical and personal songwriter, this seemed to be just the most autobiographical piece of all,” Demme said. Shortly after the show however, the director inside of him took over. ”It just felt like a film waiting to be done.”
Initially the idea was simply for Demme to film the last stop on Young’s tour – two sold out shows at Toronto’s iconic Massey Hall, which also happens to be the city Young calls home. But, Young grew up, as he sings in the opening lines of arguably his most popular song, in ‘a town in north Ontario,’ a lyric not lost on Demme. “When we went up to Toronto in preparation of the show, I was like, ‘Wait, Toronto is in Ontario? Are we near the little town?’”
Omemee, Ontario as it turns out, is a mere 85 miles from Massey Hall, and immediately the wheels in Demme’s head started turning. ”The last time Neil played there was in the ’70s when he was just emerging as an acknowledged artist, and he hadn’t been back there since. So all of these elements just started conspiring.”
“He was happy to get in the car. I didn’t know what he was going to be talking about, nothing was rehearsed or anything. In a way, it’s about a guy who’s in his car driving to his concert except we start flashing forward and interrupting the drive with full fledged songs,” Demme said. ”And that was fun and exciting because I was mixing the order of the songs because I wanted the songs to have an emotional journey narrative implied in the way we were arranging them.”
Intercutting stories from the road with beautifully shot concert footage, Journeys features performances of all eight tracks from ‘Le Noise,’ along with classics like ‘Hey Hey, My My,’ ‘Down by the River,’ and ‘Ohio,’ as well as previously unreleased songs ‘Leia’ and ‘You Never Call.’ The result is an intimate retrospective on Young’s formative years serving as interludes between the intense performances the singer has built his career on.
“His stories are so great, his immersion in his stories are so fantastic,” Demme said. ”Nothing was planned in advance or tailored to any song. For the first time, there’s no one else to cut to, it’s just Neil.”
Neil Young Journeys fittingly made its world premiere at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival last September, and recently premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival. It is now open in select theaters.