“There is a town in north Ontario,” begins one of Neil Young’s most famous songs, “Helpless.”
The north-Ontario town is called Omemee, and it’s where Young’s latest movie with director Jonathan Demme begins. “Neil Young Journeys” (which debuts July 13 in Chicago) has the viewer riding shotgun with the famed singer-songwriter as he drives his 1956 Crown Victoria from Omemee to Toronto’s Massey Hall, where he plays a pair of concerts to close out an extraordinary 2011 solo tour. The stories Young weaves on the road – some hilarious, some poignant -- become the songs he performs on stage.
A few landmarks of his life remain intact. Some have changed drastically. Others have disappeared.
“Oh, man, it’s all gone,” Young says as he surveys the landscape from his car window. “But it’s in my head. That’s why you don’t have to worry when you lose friends. Because they’re still in your head, still in your heart.”
The connection has never run deeper between Young and Demme than in “Journeys,” the third in a series of concert films that includes “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” (2006) and “Neil Young: Trunk Show” (2009).
Demme’s distinguished history as a moviemaker is characterized by his sharp affinity for music (he also has made the Talking Heads’ classic concert film “Stop Making Sense” and Robyn Hitchcock’s “Storefront Hitchcock,” among his many credits), and Young has directed countless art-house and music-related movies in the guise of his alter-ego, Bernard Shakey, including the 2003 “Greendale.” Their pairing seemed inevitable, if only because they both see and hear music so well.
In an interview, Young and Demme discussed their collaboration:
Q: Jonathan, you’ve made three concert movies with Neil. What ground was left uncovered that you wanted to document in this film?
Demme: They’re each very different movies. We would want to take a different approach anyway, because you can’t find two music movies more diametrically opposed than “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” and “Neil Young: Trunk Show.” It’s a given we don’t want to resemble either of those films. All our attention was on doing a great job, becoming one cinematically with this great show he was giving. Then I realized he’s finishing this tour in Ontario and you think of that line, “There is a town in north Ontario,” and you think, where is that specific little town? Does it exist? It’s Omemee. That’s the town in north Ontario where Neil grew up. And he’s going to Toronto, Massey Hall, a historic place where he’s played some of his greatest concerts. It was an organic opportunity that couldn’t be ignored because these songs were particularly up close, personal, very autobiographical.
Q: Neil, how often do you actually drive yourself to shows?
Young: Actually, during that tour I was doing a lot of driving. I had the electric car on a bunch of dates -- the LincVolt. Usually I have somebody in the car with me, sometimes I have my kids with me. (His disabled son) Ben Young will be with me, and a caregiver holding him so he can ride in the front seat with me. I rarely go by myself.
Q: Jonathan, out of all the subjects and artists you could’ve focused on, why did you choose Neil’s music to explore in such depth?
Demme: Cinema. Neil’s the most cinematic person that I can think of. He writes cinematically, moves cinematically, walks cinematically, thinks and writes cinematically. I’m looking at him now and there is some cinema chip inside of him. (Young laughs). All these stories in these songs are different, and the characters he assumes are so different, he never repeats himself in the way he presents himself in the music. It’s this endless kind of thing. I have lots of ideas for movies. I would love to do a spoken word movie with Neil. He’s a human fountain of cinema. I admire him so much -- forget the music, he’s one of my all time life-enriching sources. I love his sensibilities as a filmmaker. I know what he likes. We’re very free, open, when we work together.
Q: What does (Young filmmaking alter-ego) Bernard Shakey think of these films?
Young: Bernard Shakey never has an opinion on any cinematographer. He’s almost exclusively restricted to his own point of view (laughs).
Q: When you allow a director into your life in this way, what do you hope to achieve with the movie? What do you want your fans to see and get out of it?
Young: The goal is basic. I’m just looking to have a good day. I like working with Jonathan. We both love cinema, making pictures. No matter which side of the camera I’m on, I know we’re going to have a good day. We get joy from the same kind of things. We’re not worried about what the audience is or what it’s going to think. I’m more worried about what we’re doing, and having fun with it.
Q: Does anything you see when you watch yourself perform surprise you?
Young: It’s intense for me to watch, so I don’t watch very much. I don’t want to be affected by what I look like. I don’t want to get too many solid prints of what I look like in my head. It’s a distraction. It’s something I would have to forget later in order to be able to perform. It’s not constructive to the music, to be aware of it. When I see it performed, I close my eyes and listen to it, because I don’t want to be distracted by what I see. I get lost in the music. For me, the moment and the song need to come together as one thing.
Q: You’re coming to the end of an intense evening of solo music and you perform “Walk With Me,” and out pops this beautiful, falsetto voice. Do you surprise yourself hitting a note like that at the end of the show?
Young: I didn’t hit any other notes like that during the show, so I still had that one left (laughs). There is enough adrenaline going so that physically it’s not a problem. The adrenaline takes over.
Q: The intensity in your performance of “Ohio” (about the National Guard shooting four students during Vietnam war protests at Kent State University in 1970) is particularly moving. I’m sure you’ve played that song many times, so did something happen that day that led to that intensity?
Young: Something did happen. You might be under the misconception that I performed the song a lot over the years, but after performing it with CSNY (Crosby Stills Nash & Young) soon after it was written (in 1970), I stopped playing it for a good 20 years. That song had a moment when it was urgent, and then that moment was gone. And later it had another moment as a folk song. It had a re-emergence as a folk song during this tour. When I would play with Crosby, we would often avoid doing “Ohio.” But when I did the “Living with War” tour with CSNY (in 2006), “Ohio” made sense with those songs, historically. So I did it then. There are very limited performances of that song. Moving into the moment when I was doing it, occasionally you have a moment where the song lives and you’re right there, it’s a coming together of the characters, the anguish, the realization that people have been killed at that very moment in the song. Everybody knew that four students were killed on a campus in the United States in a matter of minutes. That was incredibly emotional and life-altering. Channeling that -- maybe four, five times in the history of performing that song -- things come together where you feel that you’re in touch with those souls. You’re not thinking, the temperature changes in your body, your nose gets cold, your forehead gets cold, and suddenly you’re many people at once. That was happening at the end of that performance.
Demme: I’ve got a theory about that. When I see Neil inhabiting that song, I don’t see it as a reminder of history. I see it as a cry of warning. I see it as a new song, the offspring of the “Living with War” album. In a time where we’ve got overseas invasions, dehumanization of immigrants, greater abstraction of the confined population, drone strikes and stop-and-frisk, and I see Neil saying, “We’re not that far from shooting our students again.” I feel it’s a wake-up call.
Young: Also the hypocrisy of us standing by in shock and awe over what’s happening in Syria when our government has not apologized to the families of the four students shot at Kent State. What’s the difference? Absolutely nothing. They’re doing that overseas in places like Cairo, but we did that right here too.
Demme: It’s a modern song. It’s not an oldie.
Q: That definitely comes through in the film. Jonathan, how much advance scouting of the show did you do before filming a show like this?
Demme: We had been so scrupulous with the hand-crafted, elegant design of “Neil Young: Heart of Gold,” we wanted to be extremely spontaneous in “Trunk Show”: Hand-held cameras, no fixed camera positions, wanting to respond very in the moment. “Neil Young Journeys” was a huge undertaking. I wanted to see the shows, to know it better and better. I went to about four performances over a year. My aim was to keep it simpler, shoot the guitar beautifully at all times. Assign a camera to the guitar every time. Two beautiful close-ups to capture every word. And then a couple cameras a little more spontaneous searching for stuff. The deeper you get into it, you realize how extremely autobiographical the process is for Neil.
Q: The personal level of the songs really is key. “Hitchhiker” and “Love and War” – you’re really tough on yourself in those songs, Neil. Is writing and performing those songs a way of explaining your behavior to yourself or the people you may have hurt, or maybe making amends?
Young: I don’t think of it that way. I don’t have the preconceptions of what I’m doing. I just do it. I perform it. Those are personal songs. I think they represent other things, not just me. I feel if I’m true to myself and what I’m writing that other people will believe it’s about them too.
Demme: Yes. I am so nuts about “Hitchhiker.” In the stage show it comes earlier than it does in the movie. But it’s a showstopper. There is almost nowhere to go after you perform it, so I put it later in the film. It’s a lot of things. A love song to (Young’s wife) Pegi, and a song to encourage anyone who’s having a hard time. It’s like, “You think you can’t get out of the fix you’re in? Listen to what I’ve been through.”
Young: Until the next one (laughs).
Q: What inspired the camera on the microphone stand, which turns a couple of songs into these really intense, almost bizarre close-ups of Neil singing?
Demme: That angle is shot from a camera that is smaller than a cigarette pack, mounted on the microphone stand. Our cinematographer Declan Quinn was obsessed with getting a close-up of Neil, the singer, without a microphone in the foreground. He wanted a clean close-up, which is impossible because everyone sings so close to the microphone. So Declan had this camera screwed onto the mike stand in such a way that there would be this beautiful up angle into Neil’s face. But the nut loosened, and it became a close-up of Neil’s mouth, the portal through which the lyrics and voice emerge. And Declan was upset. But I thought it was a great gift from the gods of cinema. I knew it was an angle that we never could have dreamed up, but that also could overstay its welcome. But because of the intensity of “Down by the River,” and what this tortured guy is confiding to us, we should be this close to this guy. And on “Hitchhiker,” a little bit of saliva went on the lens, it became this deranged angle for a deranged narrative. It became absolutely the only shot to go with. It was a fortuitous little blessing.
Young: Interestingly enough, that camera angle only happens on E minor chords (laughs). Those are the only E minor chords in the show.
Q: Music affects everything. What about your new album with Crazy Horse? “Americana” is kind of a historical time trip into classic folk songs. Was that a way in for you to make new music with these guys?
Young: I was writing a book, a memoir, when I did those sessions with Crazy Horse, and I was writing about playing those songs with the Squires, my first band in Thunder Bay, Ontario, in 1964. A band named the Thorns came through the club where we were the house band. And they did this version of “O Susanna,” that Tim Rose, who was in the Thorns, arranged. And it really impressed me, so we learned it and played it in the Squires. And then we did “My Darling Clementine,” “Tom Dula,” a bunch of others. I was writing about that, so as I was starting a new album with Crazy Horse, we started playing those songs. It was pretty natural. And before we knew, we had a whole album of material that fit together.