Neil Young Journeys, director Jonathan Demme's third pairing with the righteous and famously grouchy Canadian songwriting icon, is ostensibly a concert film. Fleeting moments of Young cruising around his childhood hometown, Omemee, Ontario, in a 1956 Crown Vic en route to Toronto's Massey Hall elevate the film to documentary status — but just barely. Shot during the last two nights of Young's 2011 solo world tour, the performance itself drives the film as storied songs such as "Down By the River," "Ohio," and "Hey Hey, My My" help form a coda to Demme's Neil Young trilogy, which includes Heart of Gold (2006) and Trunk Show (2009).
Demme's obsessions with the man and his songs culminate with this trek to where the story began. But when Young unveils a few new numbers throughout the show, including the tinkling piano-driven "Leia" and "You Never Call Me," there's an undeniable sense that no matter how exhausted he appears to be by the end of the performance, the journey isn't over.
The snarling notes Young grinds out of his guitar like a well-oiled machine play in stark contrast to his warbling and Muppet-like voice. Tight shots capture his grizzled face washed in hues of red and blue light. The camera gets a little too close from time to time, though, breaking the threshold of Young's personal space. In the midst of a particularly ramped-up run through "The Hitchhiker," the lens is hit with a glob of spit or sweat (maybe both).
Such shots offer an intimate look at every grimace, every emotion, and every bit of stubble on Young's chin. It can be jarring and, after a while, more of a distraction than anything else. Because it's Demme commanding the camera, one can't help but be reminded of Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, applying lipstick and eyeliner, all while muttering unspeakable things into the mirror.
Young appears perfectly at ease recalling stories from his youth, even while laughing off memories of killing a turtle by sticking a firecracker "up its ass," getting paid a nickel to say "you have a fat ass" to old ladies, and being convinced to eat tar because he was told that it tastes like chocolate. What's most unsettling is how nostalgic he is about these horrible tales, seemingly oblivious to that fact that even for a kid, there's nothing endearing about such antics.
No redemption needed, though. Young has cultivated an entire music legacy out of philanthropy and activism. And when the credits role to the tune of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Helpless," his words hang in the air: "There is a town in north Ontario, with dream comfort memory to spare, and in my mind I still need a place to go, all my changes were there." With that, Neil Young's journey is made all the more poignant, warts and all.