The first rule of thumb for making a great live concert film, according to Jonathan Demme, is to pretend that it’s not a live concert film.

"Make the movie for moviegoers," says the director of Stop Making Sense, Swimming to Cambodia and now, Neil Young: Heart of Gold.

"The first giant step in that direction is to pretend that there’s no audience there," Demme says. "Don’t show ‘em. Because you want to create a dream, a musical journey for the moviegoer. You don’t need any bystanders to distract you, or interrupt your relationship with what’s going on onstage. And then the camera can become the roving best seat in the house."

The second requirement, says Demme, who also directed The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, is "that you have this underlying, unquestionable belief that this music, this performance, is more than worth a trip to the movie theater. Because there’s a lot of great artists with a great repertoire who couldn’t make a feature film, whose songs don’t have that extra dimension."

For Heart of Gold, Demme had no worries about that extra dimension. The movie is drawn from two concerts filmed in August in Nashville’s fabled Ryman Auditorium. The shows marked the premiere of Young’s album Prairie Wind, a collection that muses on mortality and memory, and takes stock of what’s left behind. It comes in the wake of the death of Young’s father and of the 60-year-old Young’s own brush with death when he was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm.

Young dons a gray cowboy suit and gaucho hat and is joined by as many as three dozen musicians on the Ryman stage. They include Emmylou Harris; Young’s wife, Pegi; steel guitarist Ben Keith; Muscle Shoals keyboard ace Spooner Oldham; the Fisk University Jubilee Singers; and Young’s longtime guitar tech Larry Cragg, who plays a musical broom on a particularly lovely version of "Harvest Moon."

Demme and Young first worked together when the Canadian rocker wrote the title song for Philadelphia. And they talked about collaborating on Greendale, Young’s 2003 film based on his concept album of the same name about environmental activism in a small northern California town.

The effusive, Academy Award-winning director couldn’t carve out the time for Greendale because of commitments to The Manchurian Candidate, but when fishing for a follow-up project, he called Young, who had just begun work on Prairie Wind.

The intensely private songwriter didn’t tell Demme that he was sick at the time. "I remember him telling me that he was going to New York for a couple of days," Demme recalls. "I could’ve sworn that he told me he was going to a foot doctor."

For Heart of Gold, Demme and Young discussed traveling to the Canadian prairie town where Young grew up. "But the more he talked about the Ryman, and his love of Nashville, and the musicians he played with" – on Prairie Wind, and its country-flavored predecessors Harvest (1972) and Harvest Moon (1992) – "the visual dimension of that really started turning me on. And it seemed like the thing to do is create a real, loving, no-nonsense valentine to American country music."

The intense close-ups of Young – which "make up the spine of the film," according to Demme – show a craggy-faced performer completely immersed, as always, in his material.

There are more Demme performance films on the way. Besides a nonmusical documentary about New Orleans residents hit hardest by Katrina – which he began shooting last month – the director’s wish list includes Fats Domino and acclaimed songwriter Sufjan Stevens.

Demme proclaims himself "perfectly happy" with Heart of Gold.

"In fact, I think I’m more happy with it than anything I’ve ever done," he says. "My whole position was that if Neil Young is actually going to agree to let me film him performing, then I want him to love this movie, and reflect what he cares about ... . I didn’t want to impose my thing. I wanted to memorialize his thing."

© 2006, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Neil Young: Heart of Gold is currently in theaters.