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
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
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.
Film: Interview [Jonathan Demme: Heart of Gold]
Jonathan Demme: Making a Concert Film Come Alive in Heart of Gold
By Dan DeLuca
Article posted on 2/21/2006
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