Filmmaker Jonathan Demme sounded downright giddy when I chatted with him recently about his latest collaboration with one of rock’s great iconoclasts in the new documentary film “Neil Young Journeys.”
“The privilege of teaming with Neil three times — it’s like, 'I got to do that in my life?’ Demme said from his home in Rockland County in upstate New York during an interview for the Neil Young story running in Sunday's Arts & Books section. “He’s been a gigantic character in my heart and brain since I was a hippie like him back in the ‘60s. His music was my companion for decades before I even met him.”
I asked about the distinctly different tone of each of their three films, each using pointedly different approaches to avoid any sense of repetition from one to the other.
“When we did the first one, ‘Heart of Gold,’” he said, “everything about that was conceived for that film: the choice of venue, we made the costumes, we made the backdrops, everything. The angles we wanted to shoot we rehearsed with the band for 10 days before the performance. It was lit exactly for the movie. We just knew everything we wanted to create.
“There was an extra bit of excitement with ‘Heart of Gold,’ in that the audience never would have heard any of these songs before, because it was going to be the debut of the ‘Prairie Wind’ album. ‘Heart of Gold’ turned out to be stylistically exactly what it was envisioned as.”
Four years later, they went almost 180 degrees the opposite direction for "Trunk Show," which was shot during his "Chrome Dreams II" tour.
“As a reaction to the grace and elegance of ‘Heart of Gold,’ we decided it would be a punk shoot—we didn’t plan anything. We went with the lighting of the stage show, shot in the moment, very much like that," Demme said.
For “Neil Young Journeys,” yet another angle emerged organically.
“I just had this thought in my head of this grand maestro putting on a show all by himself, creating a huge orchestral sound all by himself,” Demme said, referring to the solo performance documented in the film -- from Young’s 2010-11 tour focusing on the music of “Le Noise,” the Daniel Lanois-produced album on which Young accompanied himself on prepared acoustic and electric guitars.
“We were liberated from one of the great things about the other two films, which was Neil and his screen interaction with other musicians,” he said. “We really capitalized on that in ‘Heart of Gold’ and ‘Neil Young Trunk Show,’ so this time, we’re losing a great value we had in the others, but what we gain now is total access to Neil only. Now it’s about Neil and the audience, Neil and the camera, and we just had a blast with that.
“Because it’s just Neil alone, stylistically it wouldn’t be like either [previous] one," Demme said, "but we also thought about: ‘What else can we do here to make this film absolutely different from the other two?’
"Neil was open to the idea of doing a little road trip," Demme said. "Gosh, got so close to that little town in Ontario where he grew up [Omemee]. I felt it would be fun and interesting to give us some suspense of filming him driving to the concert [at Massey Hall in Toronto]. I really loved that part of the film -- especially as a Neil Young admirer, to put it mildly.”
“Neil Young Journeys” opens a limited theatrical engagement on June 29 at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles and also will screen June 18 and 19 as part of the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival.
Does this mean Demme and Young have finally exhausted all the creative possibilities?
"It would be so greedy for me to go, 'I hope to get to do it again,' he said. "But if they want to do something again, I’m all over it."
Photos, from top: Director Jonathan Demme on stage at Toronto's Massey Hall during the filming of the 'Neil Young Journeys' concert documentary; Young on stage at Massey Hall. Credit: Sony Pictures Classics.