Watch the Tunes: Neil Young's Heart of Gold

On June 2, 2016

There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your Netflix and Chill time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Neil Young: Heart Of Gold, which is streaming over on Netflix.

With a lot of older acts, their latest album can sometimes feel like an afterthought to the tour they’re about to embark on. The first stadium show I ever went to was the Rolling Stones on their Bridges To Babylon tour and the best thing to come from that album was the massive “bridge“ that extended from the stage after the first set that led the band to a smaller stage in the middle of the audience. I dunno, it’s just tough to get excited for new albums from groups like ZZ Top or AC/DC, both of whom I’d go see live playing their respective walls of battle tested stone cold stunners in a heartbeat. Not so for Neil Young, though. He’s one of the few guys who’s been around for decades and still drops fascinating and thought-provoking albums of songs you want to hear played live even at the cost of his legendary back catalog of hits.

Now, imagine now that you have the opportunity to hear a whole album's’ worth of new Neil Young, in full, performed over a month before anyone else gets to hear it... Sounds great, right? That’s exactly what the audience at Nashville's legendary Ryman Auditorium got in the summer of 2005 when Young stopped in for two nights of shows presenting music from his then-forthcoming album Prairie Wind.



 

Recorded in Nashville earlier that year, Prairie Wind was surrounded on all sides by some deeply affecting experiences for Young. For one, his father passed away that spring, and for another Neil personally had gone through a recent a brush with death via an aneurysm that left him unconscious and bleeding from his femoral artery just a couple of months before recording. Needless to say, the music here is deeply introspective even by Neil Young’s previous high water marks in vulnerability. I mean, what other kind of songs could you possibly make when you, the guy who recorded Harvest before you’re even out of your twenties, find yourself staring down such an intense awareness of your own mortality before you even get out of your fifties?

The film itself is broken up into two sections: The first is a performance of the album in full a month before it was released, and the second is an “encore set” of songs from Young’s past that were all recorded in Nashville. There are a ton of musicians that come and go from the stage, including Emmylou Harris and Spooner Oldham as well as local color from the Nashville String Machine, the Memphis Horns, and the Fisk University Jubilee Singers. Neil’s guitar tech Larry Cragg even gets in on the action playing a broom. Neil’s banter between songs is expectedly dry and succinct. It’s moving, given the circumstances, to hear him talk about his father giving him a ukulele when he was seven, and beam with pride when he talks about his daughter’s imminent graduation from college.

Heart Of Gold was directed by Jonathan Demme, whose best known contribution to the world of music documentaries is the Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense. Here, he’s a little more restrained but there are still some excellent staging decisions going on, even if they’re much less grandiose as David Byrne’s wildly oversized suit. The intro is pretty simple, with the musicians being briefly interviewed while they’re in their respective rides headed to the theater, so the whole aneurism thing is broached in order to properly frame the proceedings as well as really hit the Nashville connection as hard on the head as they can and all but make the city’s spirit a member of the band on stage for those two nights of shows. At the end, under the credits, Young plays a solo acoustic version of "The Old Laughing Lady" for an empty theater before picking his hat up off his guitar case and walking off presumably into the warm Nashville night air. It’s as perfect an ending as you could hope for to such an excellent document of such a special performance as this.

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Profile Picture of Chris Lay
Chris Lay

Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.

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