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Neil Young Journeys

UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL: Neil Young dominates every frame of Jonathan Demme's new concert film.

Jonathan Demme once made the best rock concert film ever. Neil Young Journeys, a film of Young's 2011 Le Noise concert performance in Toronto, is up there with Stop Making Sense. Demme's 2006 Young concert film, Heart of Gold, hit the nostalgia button too hard. That's inevitable when you play the famed Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. By contrast, this stunning Canadian solo show is a huge improvement, far more spare and upfront.

Demme contrasts the baker's dozen songs with a road trip: an 84-mile journey between Young's childhood home in Omemee, Ontario, and the brick Massey Hall in Toronto, where Young is set to perform. The Massey stage is dressed like a hippie living room, with a row of amps in frayed yellow tweed, a fringed lamp with glass cabochons and a cigar-store wooden Indian. Around these props, Young works on his Frankenguitar Old Black and that beautiful hollow-bodied Gretch White Falcon.

We also see a bare-entrailed upright piano, a painted-up grand and a Gothic pump organ. Seated at the last, with a harmonica holder on his chin, Young plays a knockout version of "After the Gold Rush," with its spine-chilling, Bradburian last verse: "Flying Mother Nature's/Silver seed to a new home."

"Helpless" begins with the line, "There is a town in north Ontario…," and we finally see that town, and it's even greener and more peaceful than we might have imagined. The same fearless strength dwells in "Sign of Love" (an ode to an aged lover, who seems slightly suspicious of affection) as there is in "Ohio." On that 1970 song, Demme slaps up big red Godard-like capital letters with the names of the four victims at Kent State.

This collaboration (Neil Young Trunk Show, from 2009, filling out a triad) demonstrates a remarkable trust between performer and documentary-maker. Neil Young Journeys doesn't just sound like art, it looks like it. A scrap of blown-up Super-8 turns into a blizzard of pixels, scattered like the embers of a skyrocket. Young becomes a series of thrillingly novel and noble abstractions: the imploding straw hat, the 10-day stubbled, shapeless neck filling up the screen. One drop of flicked saliva turns a circlet of the lens into a funhouse mirror. The cracked, seraphic tenor is a scalpel-edged instrument, but Young is nobody's swan. Behold the anti-Bieber.

Neil Young Journeys

NR; 87 min.

Opens Friday, Camera 12, San Jose


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