Film Review: A purely golden Neil Young film

There’s an old adage at the Gauntlet saying: “no one really knows what to do with a music DVD.” Entertainment writers and editors alike have wondered whether it’s proper to review the music, the performance, the quality of the footage or how amiable the subjects are. To this day it has remained a mystery.

At first glance Neil Young: Heart of Gold— director Jonathan Demme’s recording of the world premiere performance of Neil Young’s most recent album Prairie Wind— appears to be a music DVD on a big screen, running the risk of falling victim to the eternal truism. It’s simply, footage of the two-night concert at the Ryman Auditorium, preceded by a few minutes of interview with a variety of musicians. The spare moments caught in cabs and elevators and just outside the door to the show don’t immediately play any role other than introducing the movie, a kind of background for the opening credits.

However, as the footage rolls and the music starts, any worries are swept away by Young’s unique style of country. Indeed the sheer country-ness of Young’s rag tag band–the abundance of light coloured suits, matching, belted shirt dresses, fringe and cowboy boots–placates any plot-hungry audience. Slowly, as Young unfolds the anecdotes behind his songs, new and old, the greater story of Prairie Wind unfurls itself.

Prairie Wind was written at a curious interval in Young’s life where he was facing his mortality. Not only was his daughter growing up and his father and friends getting older, but he had been diagnosed with a potentially lethal brain aneurysm. The songs of Prairie Wind are about these changes, there’s a song for “empty nesters,” a peaceful and forlorn song dedicated to his recently deceased father and a huge collaboration of nearly 40 musicians on stage to honour a recently felled contemporary. As Young says onstage, he’s at a point in his life when he’s seeing not only people his senior die, but his friends too.

As the songs come together on stage–sometimes played by just Young and his pristine Stetson, other times performed by a line of guitars manned by the likes of his wife Pegi and the lovely Emmylou Harris–comments made during the brief interview portion return to the forefront of the mind. Young’s songs themselves tell a story of growing, expanding and fighting. Perhaps Neil Young: Heart of Gold is more a coming of age story than a music DVD, making it infinitely easier to understand.

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