Jonathan Demme is best known for directing big Hollywood movies like Silence of the Lambs, but he also made a side career out of concert films and music videos. His latest film is an intimate portrait of the veteran rocker Neil Young. Kurt Andersen spoke with Young and Demme about their new collaboration, Heart of Gold.
Kurt Andersen: You're listening to Studio 360, I'm Kurt Andersen. Neil Young has crossed paths with the filmmaker Jonathan Heart of Gold. Demme several times. Neil Young performed the title track of Demme's movie Philadelphia, which starred Tom Hanks. Demme, in turn, filmed Neil Young when he recorded four songs for the album Sleeps With Angels. Now, the two of them have collaborated on their biggest project to date, a concert film called Heart of Gold.
[From film: "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Ryman - and the world premier of Neil Young's Prairie Wind.]
KA: It is a lovely portrait of Neil Young and his very big band playing songs from his latest album, Prairie Wind, as well as some classic hits that were almost impossible for me not to sing along with as I watched the film. Jonathan Demme, Neil Young, welcome.
Jonathan Demme: Hi, Kurt.
Neil Young: Hi.
KA: Now, Jonathan, you, as I understand it, initiated this collaboration.
JD: Well, I made a phone call. Just like the Fuller brush man shows up at your door, I called Neil up and I said, "Do you need anything filmed?" I said, "Do you need any brushes today?" And Neil said, "Well, not at the moment. Not at the moment, but you can come back next time you're in the neighborhood."
KA: So, after the Fuller brush man here made his initial pitch, did you decide you were going to do this Prairie Wind tour and say, "Okay, I'd like to film that?"
NY: Actually, at first I didn't have anything to do, and I was disappointed that I didn't have any ideas. But, Jonathan called back again and said, "Well, here we are again, is anything happening now?" And I said, "Well, I've got an album going here and I'll send you the lyrics and see what you think." Then we started talking about how we could make a film out of this group of songs called Prairie Wind. The more we talked about it, the more we came around to the Ryman Auditorium being the place where we would perform the songs, because it was the home of American music, and one of the great homes of Country music and American music.
KA: The Grand Ole Opry was…
NY: Yeah, the Grand Ole Opry was there, and a lot of the original great singer-songwriters played there. And so, we got a really good full moon and went in there and…
KA: So that full moon that we see over the auditorium was not a post-production CG moon?
JD: Certainly not. No, that's a real moon.
NY: That's a real moon from the… it's a full moon, and it was a full moon that night. People just naturally want to call it a documentary, but it really isn't a documentary because it's just not.
JD: It's too manipulated. [Laughs.]
KA: A lot of documentaries aren't really documentaries either.
NY: Yeah, but it's not even a documentary style. It's not, you know.
KA: Well, and at the end, of course, where you're there alone on the stage, singing "Get Up and Walk Away," that's a highly-stylized, non-conventional documentary moment.
NY: But it's built on something that I told Jonathan that I do at my concerts. Quite often, I will go out, after the place is over and everybody's left, and there's nothing but a bunch of garbage and chairs and everything and I'll just go out and check it out. After the stage is almost totally taken down, I like to go out and just look at the place that's empty. So the only difference was there I walked out there, I had my guitar, I sat down and I played a song, and then I walked out and looked at it being empty.
KA: Had you recorded Prairie Wind at that point?
KA: And you recorded it, as we hear about in the sort of prelude to the concert, under these incredible circumstances of being about to have brain surgery to repair an aneurysm.
NY: Yeah, that was an experience.
KA: Why did you want to spend that last week - which, for all you know, might have been your last week - recording this album?
NY: Well, that's what I do that makes me feel the most at home. And my wife was with me, and she was working on the record with me, and so I really had nothing to lose. I already had the studio booked and I didn't know I had the aneurysm. Then, one day I found out I had the aneurysm and I was starting in the studio the next day. I just said to Peggy, I said, "Let's go to Nashville. I don't want to sit around here and count days until I have an operation."
KA: And then, for this performance at the Ryman that you filmed, was always the idea that you would also play these incredibly familiar hits as well?
JD: No. I know what I got obsessed with was the idea of being able to do a cinematic version of Prairie Wind. That's all I was thinking about, and we were pretty far down the line. We had gotten our creative collaborators involved and Neil had gotten the band assembled and spring-loaded, ready to go back in and then, one afternoon I was in my kitchen and I went, "Oh my God, we're going to have a 55 minute movie. That's too short." So I grabbed the phone and called Neil and said…
KA: We need 40 minutes.
JD: Yeah, man, is there any possibility you could do an encore so we could stretch this out to an hour-and-a-half? [Laughs.] It was just so great of him to decide that, again, this was a chance to reexamine some of the songs that share the same thematic terrain, the same musical terrain, and pull it all together. Because the emotional dimension that builds up during Prairie Wind , which is the real extra dimension that made me feel this could be a great movie beyond a filmed concert, well it just keeps going when we get into those other songs. It builds and builds beyond Prairie Wind . There's a moment in there, I think it's after - you get to see "Harvest Moon," and then suddenly you hear the beginning of "Heart of Gold," and the emotional impact of "Harvest Moon" hasn't begun to subside yet and suddenly here comes the power of "Heart of Gold," and it almost makes me physiologically nervous sometimes when I'm watching the movie. It's like, "This might be a little more than I even need." You know, it's really got you going. And then you go into "Old Man," and that's why, sometimes in our audiences, it thrills me to see people pulling a handkerchief or something, or a Kleenex, and starting to dry their eyes a little bit, because these emotions start coming.
KA: Well, it's so interesting, being a pretty old man myself now, seeing you up on that stage singing these songs - you know, "and I'm getting old," and all those lines. How does it feel to you to sing those songs that you first sang when you were 26 years old?
NY: Well, you know, the songs just transport me right back to what made me write them in the first place. When I'm singing the lyrics, I really am almost exactly where I was when I wrote them. That's one of the funny things about music. You know, I don't reinterpret it based on where I am now so much as just, every once in a while I'll sing a line and it'll surprise me when I hear it. There was one line in one of those songs - I think "Harvest Moon" - where I go, "Now it's getting late and the moon is climbing high," and I'm going, "Yeah, yeah it is getting late," and I keep on going and I keep singing. But where I really get emotionally involved in where I am now, compared to where I was when I wrote the song, is when I'm playing the harmonica or playing the intro. When you hear the music and you're not singing, because the singing takes you away. As soon as you start using words then that puts your soul in a whole other place and you start lining up with where the source was in the first place. But playing the harmonica is an interpretation of the feeling of the song now. It's like the expression in the harmonica, and I think in "Heart of Gold" there's a second passage on the harmonica that's got a certain amount of attitude to it that says, "Okay, I'm 60. Here I come."
JD: Attitude as in a little ferocity, right?
NY: It's a little stronger than I though it was going to be. But, you know, you just have to go with it. But that's where it makes you think about that it's now. Not when the singing is happening, but after it happens.
KA: So, when you're just playing the harmonica or doing the introductory bars, you can kind of hear it like a listener rather than being deep into it.
NY: A little bit, yeah.
KA: But it's the 26-year-old singing it.
NY: Right, and that's it. So I'm back there when that happens. But then, when I start playing the harmonica, it's like anything can happen. It could be anybody. I could be 100 years old or I could be 5 years old.
KA: One thing that's interesting about your voice is this tenor, this Neil Young voice, which is still so extraordinarily recognizable. So, to my ears, not so different than it was in 1970 or '72. Does that make you feel - no pun intended - young? Because it strikes me as, "Boy, he still sounds like he did on those records I bought when I was a kid."
NY: Well there were years that went by when I couldn't sing "Old Man" because I couldn't hit the notes. For some unexplained reason, I couldn't do it. And I've now figured it out as the reason why I could never do that song right is because I was never comfortable, because I knew that I didn't have the support that could give me the feeling of the original. It calls for a lot of particular things to make that happen. The way the banjo sounds, Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor singing with me - Linda's voice is so high and she hits all those high notes - and they add a lot to it. So if you're singing a song like "Old Man" and you're coming up to the chorus and you don't have that, just above you and below you, and you know it's not going to be there, it's a lot harder to hit the middle note. So I would get tight and I wouldn't be able to hit it. Correspondingly, I lowered the key, and then I would be able to kind of do it but it didn't sound the same. But with this band I said, "I'm going back up to the original keys on all of these songs, because I have all the support I need."
KA: In terms of the team of all those players.
NY: Those players, all the musicians were all there, all the people I needed for the support. So I didn't have to worry about it. So then I could move it up in pitch and actually be relaxed enough to actually hit the note.
KA: Was this, Jonathan, a very different experience than making your other great concert film with the Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense?
JD: I love trying to take any kind of performance that has moved me a lot and find a cinematic avenue. Nothing can compete with the live experience of seeing a great artist live and being there with them in that moment. But movies can do something else that's very special that even being there live can't do. We can move in there with our beautifully-lit close-ups and create an intimacy between the viewer and the artist that is extraordinarily exciting in its own right. But, that said, there's just all the difference. I wouldn't want to do any film that resembled in any way anything I'd previously done, and that was part of this many-faceted thrill of getting to work with Neil Young on a feature-length film. One was, well, this is going to be completely different from anything I've ever done before.
KA: And Neil, when you watch this film, do you feel - what? I'm happy to stick this in the time capsule and have my grandchildren look at it?
NY: Oh, absolutely. I feel good about the performance; I feel good about the band. There's no aspect of the film that I'm not comfortable with. It is revealing; it is personal. It's very close. But it's true and it's real, so you can live with it.
KA: Were there revealing moment that made you think, "Do I really want that in there?"
NY: Well, it's not a question of whether I want it in there. I'd already said I was going to do this. So, it's not a question of that. It's a question of, "Wow, look what happened."
KA: Neil Young, Jonathan Demme, thank you both very much for talking with me today.
JD: Thanks a lot, Kurt, it was fun.
KA: Heart of Gold is open in theaters across the country, and you can find out more about the film and Neil Young on our website, studio360.org.