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In Jonathan Demme’s new concert film, Neil Young takes a look at his life on the stage where Hank once sang

Gold, Gold Heart

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For two nights last August, the plaza outside the Ryman Auditorium was the hottest place in an already sweltering downtown cityscape. Viewed from Commerce Street, past the construction equipment stilled for the evening, the concrete courtyard held gray heads, buzz cuts and cowboy hats; cowgirls in billowing skirts and gents in light summer suits; dirt-poor folkies and wealthy music bizzers. It was a microcosmic dream of Music City. And all across the block, from the convention center to the Batman Building, echoed the faint whine of a harmonica and a hillbilly singer’s heartfelt plea: “I want to live, I want to give.”

That sentiment resounds throughout Neil Young: Heart of Gold, a concert film directed by Jonathan Demme that makes its gala Nashville premiere Thursday night at the Green Hills Cinema 16. Filmed over two nights last year at the Ryman, it features the famed singer-songwriter taking stock of his solo career with the loving accompaniment of old acquaintances and new collaborators. Present are his wife Pegi, singer Emmylou Harris, producer/steel player Ben Keith, guitarist Grant Boatwright, the Fisk Jubilee Singers and keyboard great Spooner Oldham, among an onstage ensemble of more than 20 players.

The shows were generous, bighearted affairs, celebrations of the abiding strengths of family, community and church in the face of crushing mortality. Most of the songs were taken from Young’s 2005 Prairie Wind album, a Nashville-made record that reflected a year of heartbreak and health scares. Its recording and release last year encompassed the death of Young’s father, novelist and sportswriter Scott Young, as well as the singer’s own struggle with a brain aneurysm. The songs and personal drama gave the event a haunting poignancy—never more piercing than when the almost 60-year-old Young revisited a line from his youth: “Old man, look at my life / I’m a lot like you were.”

But if the shows were a triumph of resilience, Demme’s film is a sweet reverie of music-making as one of life’s eternal joys. Always a believer in makeshift families—whether they’re the Talking Heads building a community from an empty stage up in his classic concert doc Stop Making Sense, or the Preston Sturges-like comic ensembles of his Melvin and Howard and Married to the Mob—the director revels in the camaraderie among the many musicians: the look of concern that drummer Chad Cromwell gives Young during a particularly emotional song, or the spirited call-and-response between fiddler Clinton Gregory and the Nashville String Machine.

Explicitly referencing the Ryman’s history—not just as a church but as the Mother Church of Country Music, the longtime home of the Grand Ole Opry—Young invokes the legacy of Hank Williams, even performing at one point on the man’s own guitar. But the movie makes clear that Nashville’s heritage is under siege. As Emmylou Harris, God bless her, says in an interview sequence, “The aesthetic police should come and arrest” whoever allowed a skyscraper to be built in the Ryman’s parking lot, which will overshadow one of Nashville’s defining landmarks. In one ominous shot, the Ryman sits framed in the crook of an earth mover’s claw arm.

And yet it is precisely an awareness of such transience that gives Neil Young: Heart of Gold its beauty. It’s a tribute to people and places that are gone, shot with such affection that it seems to lodge in the memory on impact—like the movie’s gorgeously grainy Super 16 mm shot of driving downtown on Church Street, a treasure from a future archive. The result may be the best movie filmed here since Robert Altman shot Nashville more than three decades ago. The difference is that Altman saw the city as a center that could not hold, either politically or spiritually. In Demme’s film, it’s a place we’ll always call home, whether the house is standing or not.

In these interviews, conducted six months apart, Neil Young and Jonathan Demme talk about how they came to Nashville and what the city means to them.

Neil Young

After 10 days of rehearsal, two nights of filming, and a revolving door of international media filing in and out of the Hermitage Hotel’s second-floor press suite, Neil Young could be forgiven for being ornery and exhausted in person. But he wasn’t. Last August, just hours before his flight left Nashville, he was still plainly riding the high of the Prairie Wind concerts and their familial warmth even after two straight days of interviews.

Asking only for a couple of beers (“Don’t let anything stand in your way,” he told an assistant, with mock gravity), he didn’t seem like someone who’d come off two days of media baby-kissing. He’d even spent part of the previous day at a photo shoot in 95-degree heat, posing in front of the historic hotel with a vintage roadster. Yet he was disarmingly soft-spoken and relaxed, and when he talked about Nashville and country music, his lined face sometimes crinkled in an almost insuppressible grin. He had the ease of a man who knew he’d done a good day’s work.

The Scene spoke to Neil Young on Aug. 21, 2005, the last day of his Nashville stay.

On the Prairie Wind album, you sing about how music was a communal experience for your family when you were growing up. Did movies have the same role in your family life?

Not really, I don’t think. I think I was more into movies myself. Once a week we’d go to movies together. In Toronto. Lot of movie-going happened there about the time Mister Roberts was out, Jerry Lewis movies…you know, family entertainment. We went to a lot of movies together as a family, and then I had a matinee I went to once a week.

When did you get interested in movies as more than just a casual viewer?

A lot of people go to movies, but they don’t care who made them. I became interested…. It was funny, I ended up seeing some Fellini film at some point in my life, and a Godard film, and both those films I had to stay. I wanted to know, what the hell was that? I went to them both by accident. One of ’em [the Fellini] had a kind of a carnival atmosphere. Another one was a Godard film of endless long shots of shopping, up and down the aisle.

What made you decide to do the movie?

Jonathan figured he had a year off and called me up wanting to know if I was doing anything. I said, I just almost finished this record; I’ll send you a copy and see what you think. He loved it, and I said, if you want to do something, maybe you should come down to Nashville and get to know some of the people down here and the way we made the record. I was very proud of having done a renaissance record in the old way—the analog gear, the music being played all at the same time. It’s the kind of music that’s timeless if you get it right; you don’t have to worry about contriving it or digitally editing things. You just play it.

I asked him to come down to meet Emmylou, come down and meet Grant Boatwright and Ben Keith, and they’ll take you around Nashville and show you the Ryman. We thought the Ryman would be a good place to introduce the record, and it just germinated from there.

What suited Nashville for the album and the movie?

The musicians, and the atmosphere. Nothing feels more comfortable—the songs, the places. I always loved country music and where country music was coming from. There’s a depth to country music—it’s not all songs about cars and girlfriends, there’s more to it than that. But there’s nothing wrong with those songs. (smiles) It’s just great music. It’s timeless.

What was the first time you came to Nashville?

I was there in ’66 or ’67 with [Buffalo Springfield bandmate Stephen] Stills. We went down Broadway and hung out at Tootsie’s, looked at the Ryman. We were just a couple of green kids, you know. I think Stills had a guitar and I had a guitar with me. We went into Tootsie’s with our guitars: it was about 10 o’clock in the morning. The bar was empty, and the guy in there said, “Who are you guys?” “We’re musicians!” Stephen, he had a drawl, he’s from Texas, he was just totally into it. The guy said, “Well, what do you do?” “We play with a group called Buffalo Springfield!” “The what? Go play something!” (laughs) So we got our guitars and played some song off our first record, “No One Said Goodbye” or something.

You sat in with the house band at Tootsie’s one night during filming. Has the place changed a lot?

Not really. (smiles) It’s pretty well exactly the way I remembered it. Not always newer music, either.

The night I saw the Prairie Wind concert, you came out in your ash-gray suit and hat, and the woman sitting behind me said, “My God, he looks like Hank Williams!” Were you deliberately calling up all that country-music iconography associated with the Ryman and the Opry?

We wanted to pay our respects to what happened there, and re-create in our own way something that happened there. So we really studied it. We studied the look and the backdrops and stuff, and the fact that everybody was crowded up to the front of the stage. It wasn’t a big wide thing where everybody had their separate microphones and everything. It was conducive to the music.

You only had a few microphones and everybody had to step up and sing into them. And everybody was glued to their radios all around the country. It was a great happening—it was like the Internet, with everybody listening to the same thing all at once.

You’ve made or appeared in several performance films over the years—not just the Rust Never Sleeps movie in 1979 or Jim Jarmusch’s Crazy Horse film Year of the Horse, but also Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. What did you get to do in this one that you didn’t in those?

This time I really concentrated on telling a story. The theater just set the tone. I just made it up as I went along. We didn’t rehearse it. Introducing songs is real important when you’re sitting in a theater all by yourself. It’s a live performance: somebody’s got to talk to you at some point, or you’re just watching a big TV at that point. It doesn’t matter how beautiful it is or how many cool angles you have or how well made-up all the people are if they don’t talk to you or try to get you going.

How did working with Demme differ from Jarmusch or Scorsese?

I don’t think it’s different, but I will say that Jonathan’s enthusiasm, and his dedication, and his leadership are great. They don’t set him apart—Jarmusch’s stuff has great enthusiasm and leadership, as does Marty. But Jonathan’s an exceptional individual with an eye for detail, and a very soulful guy and very artistic guy, and he understood what was going on in this music.

I’ve always heard people say the Ryman is a real test of talent.

It’s a great place. Sounds so good. But it’s not really a test. It’s a privilege. You don’t really get scared like you do playing a major city. It’s like you’re coming home—like Mecca. There’s anticipation but not fear. It’s rewarding. It rewards you. It is one of, if not the best, sounding halls that I’ve ever played in. For feel and sound, it’s absolutely the best. It’s like country music heaven.

And yet it was practically boarded up at one point in its recent history. Now it has a high-rise going up next door that’s going to dwarf it.

It’s a huge lack of foresight. An incredibly huge lack on the part of the city. Still, they’re never going to be able to change what’s here. There’ll be a battle before it’s changed, because it’s a big part of the city. Eventually everything changes, you can’t stop it. (smiles) But we’ll slow it down.

Jonathan Demme

Even if Jonathan Demme had not directed the landmark Talking Heads documentary Stop Making Sense—the rare concert film whose joy and effervescence are evident even to non-fans—he’d still be a music geek’s dream filmmaker. From his mid-’70s days making accomplished, distinctive genre cheapies such as Caged Heat and Crazy Mama for Roger Corman, through his Oscar-winning films The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia and beyond, his movies employ everything from reggae to Tom Petty with a showman’s sense of drama, a tastemaker’s discernment and a fan’s enthusiasm.

Which pretty much describes Demme in conversation. A self-professed music fanatic, he can reel off album credits and production history from memory. And yet he does so without a trace of pretension, as befits someone who continues to bill his movies as “pictures.” He was ebullient and emphatic in our short talk, and he’s the rare interview subject who continues even past the allotted time—though not nearly long enough.

The Scene spoke to Jonathan Demme by phone last Wednesday, March 1.

Was this your first time in Nashville?

No. I visited Nashville as a music tourist in 1979. Made a beeline for Tootsie’s, heard a lot of cool stuff in the honky-tonks, didn’t know what I was doing. I went down with a friend and just kind of got lost in the music. And I haven’t been back since. In fact, I arrived in Nashville on a train from Chicago, which was a very cool way to arrive there. It was an overnighter, I think. My dwelling of choice was the Loveless Hotel, which in those days was very quiet. Word was it had the best breakfast in Tennessee and cheap rooms (laughs).

Before you came down here, where did you get your impression of the city?

The first time Nashville as a music center struck me was way back when there was this movement where a lot of the bands and artists…well, Dylan went down, didn’t he? Nashville Skyline. And then the Beau Brummels went down and did Bradley’s Barn. I started seeing these names like Kenny Buttrey appearing on albums ’cause I was an obsesso music fanatic. And then there was this band for a while called Area Code 615, the crème de la crème [of Music Row session players]. So that’s when I went: OK, I get it. Like many people who’ve had the good fortune to be exposed to what I call “American music”—country music, whatever you want to call it—I understood what a rich part of my musical pleasure was coming out of Nashville.

What was it like back then?

Truthfully, I think I cut such a tiny little swath when I was down there on my music-tourist trip. I was just on Broadway, y’know. But I did [get a sense of] Nashville as a beautiful old American city, and now it’s a schizophrenic 21st-century American city with, thank God, still-hardy vestiges of Nashville’s past present.

Did you do anything special to prepare?

When I came down to Nashville preparing to make this movie, I came down so I could meet Emmylou Harris, and meet [costume designer] Manuel, and meet Ben Keith, and I met up with Grant Boatwright, and he became my real guide into Nashville. We were just like instant Siamese twins, and Grant—you know Grant? Grant Boatwright is just a great American. Having that guy show you the city he adores and talking about it is just phenomenal. It was a crash course. I feel like I can kind of stake claim to knowing Nashville now. (laughs) I hesitate to say that to you [as a Nashvillian], but I’ll say it. But I love Nashville, I do know it now, and I’m so excited to be coming back for the premiere.

So what did you do?

Grant took me around to all the great clubs where the songwriters go—the Bluebird? Places on that level. [Mostly, it was] just driving around an awful lot hearing about his experiences, which he touches on a little bit in the beginning of the movie—the whole idea of vast segments of American families traveling through the night to Nashville from all over the South and the Midwest, to be present for the Grand Ole Opry. And what an enormous part of so many people’s lives that was—almost like a whole culture living the music.

[I heard] tons of stories from Grant about when he was a little boy, and the kids used to sleep in the back of the car, ’cause they’d drive all night after his dad finished his job. And they’d get up to Nashville, they’d go to the show and stay and do the “Breakfast with the Stars,” and then they’d drive all the way back to Birmingham. But often, with Grant, he would sneak away out of the seats during the show and sneak backstage and sneak up into the rafters. He knows more about the Ryman than the Ryman does (chuckles).

The movie incorporates all these traditional elements—church, family values, the heartland—without the reactionary political baggage those things have come to bear. In a way, you depoliticize them. Was that going through your head at all during the filming?

I’ll tell you one thing that was going through my head, in that regard. All of Neil’s songs, certainly the ones in the “Prairie Wind” concert he put on at the Ryman, are just these blatant reaffirmations of the enduring values that I grew up with as an American kid: Family! Relationships! Community! Positivism! All these great values that, in our increasingly cynical 21st-century mind-set, take on an elusive and almost folkloric quality. I kept thinking to myself, “This is America! This is what America is about!” I have to say, I had this moment when I wanted to get a huge American flag and put it behind the stage for the second set, because I thought, “This is patriotic music as I understand it.” Fortunately, nobody agreed with that (laughs).

You get practically the same effect with that shot of the curtains opening on the Ryman stage to the edges of the wide screen.

Well, thank you. I love that moment—the curtain parts to reveal some American heart.

And the sense of community, which is such a part of all your movies—not just the concert films, but pretty much everything going back to your Roger Corman movies—really comes through here. Was that worked out in advance?

It’s interesting, because all that stuff comes from my first conversations with Neil on the telephone—him in California, me up in Rockland County, New York—just hearing about Neil’s world and what’s important to Neil. I really wanted this film to be a great musical experience, and I had obvious confidence in Neil Young [the] songwriter, musician, what have you. But he kept talking about the players that he made this album with and how much he loves them and what a joy it is for him to actually go to Nashville, which has been a Mecca for him since he was a little boy, and for him to actually be there. And maybe we should shoot this at the Ryman, says Neil—you know, that’s the greatest venue in America! So really, it was just him talking in great detail about the musicians—even on a visual level. He’d say, “Wait until you see these guys’ faces, man—they look like a posse from a Peckinpah movie.” (laughs)

[I thought that] if all these people love playing with each other as much as it sounds like, and if they have the affection that it sounds like they have for each other, then that’ll be happening up there and it’ll bring a beautiful dimension to the movie. That gave me a lot of confidence, and it also dictated where I put the cameras. I set the cameras very much with an eye toward capturing the looks that would pass between the people. ’Cause they rehearsed for 10 days prior to the Thursday-night premiere show, and just watching them pull together and work so hard—and also just getting off on it so much—I knew we were going to have something very rich in that department.

In your concert films, there seem to be two separate narratives going on: the narrative that’s in the songs, and the narrative of the performance, of what’s happening as the musicians interact. There’s that moment during “Prairie Wind” when Neil Young’s singing about his late father, and drummer Chad Cromwell just watches him with this look of almost filial concern. Were these things you caught during filming, or later on in the editing room?

When we were shooting, I didn’t notice anything at the time (laughs). I was just hoping we had our cameras in focus and were pointing at the right people, but I was watching the stuff on little tiny monitors, so I didn’t know what we were or weren’t getting in terms of what I hoped to get on that level. It was in the cutting room that I started seeing this stuff, and the editor and I were very much driven by maximizing those connections as best we possibly could.

[For example,] I loved the way Neil’s relationship with Pegi, his wife, very subtly but unmistakably comes through, and how she kind of emerges as a character. She’s a great background singer, and then she comes forward and sings a close harmony with Neil, and she just seems to grow as a character throughout the story on that kind of subtext thing you’re talking about. And I loved that. I didn’t know we’d get that, and the little looks they exchange with each other.

And this is the only way a movie can really compete with the magic of being present at a live performance. We can’t have that unique thing of being in the room while it’s actually happening. But what we can do is just get incredibly intimate, and we can bring the viewer right up on stage and try to make the viewer feel like part of the band by the end of the movie.

So in this situation, do you feel more like part of the band or part of the audience? As director, are you a participant or a spectator?

Well, I was definitely susceptible to the idea that for two weeks I had joined Neil Young’s band. (laughs) Even though I’m not a musician, I became part of the company. But you know, I was like the audience representative—I was that enthusiastic person who was there to gobble up the essence of that show as best as we could possibly do.

Speaking of which, there were some songs and moments from the performance that didn’t make it into the movie. Why were they left out, and what will happen to them?

We only shot one song that didn’t make it into the movie, and that’s “He Was the King.” We have a great version of that. It’s not going to be in the body of the film on the DVD, but it’s gonna be a bonus extra, whatever they call ’em. That came out because the emotional power of the concert came across very quickly in the cutting room as a real cinematic bonus—we kind of get emotionally involved in this concert besides just loving the music. When “He Was the King” came on, it was such a fun rave-up that it completely blew out this emotional, dreamy journey we had gone on. So I pulled that out, and the emotional journey continued and built in its absence.

But that’s going to be on the DVD. We’re going to have a ton of stuff on there. We shot a lot of rehearsal footage—this is the first time I’ve ever gotten really excited about a DVD.

What about the 20-minute intro he did to the song “Old King,” about his dog? It seemed kind of rambling and diffuse on stage, but when I watched it on one of cinematographer Ellen Kuras’ monitors it was weirdly hypnotic.

Well, yes…but. (laughs) I didn’t even try to get that in the film. It was such a unique thing. It was almost a film in itself. I wanted to put that on as a DVD bonus, but Neil said, “No way.” (laughs) He got lost too many times.

Has DVD changed the way you think about making movies? Are you tempted to shoot extra material knowing there’s another venue for it?

You know, the extra thing—I’m not the kind of consumer who gets into those features very much. I’ll get a DVD, but I get it to watch the movie. And I want to have my own experience watching the movie, so I don’t want to hear the voiceover. I feel like I’d rather watch another movie than flick through the deleted scenes or the one thing or the other. But I have so many friends who love that stuff. And I also know that now, just on a business level—and we make films for the love of it, and we also make films because that’s the job and the investors need to get their money back—[there’s] the importance of having an enriched DVD beyond this movie. I understand that now. So that’s another reason why I got into the creation of having one.

One of the things we’re going to have, by the way, is Neil’s very first appearance on The Johnny Cash Show in 1970—which is phenomenal. And we also do this thing that actually is a cheat, because it happened at Farm Aid this year when Neil brought the Fisk Jubilee Singers up to do several of the songs. I happened to wander into his trailer there as he was getting ready to go on, and Neil was at the piano doing his vocal warm-ups. And a lot of the Jubilee Singers were sitting around on a bench nearby, and they were kind of joining him a little bit and doing their own thing. I just rolled the camera. So there’s this amazing [footage] of madman Neil Young warming his voice up at the piano with the Fisk Jubilee Singers! (laughs) And it’s one of the coolest pieces of film I’ve ever shot. Karl Himmel walks by with his dog. Very cool stuff.

Thank you for talking. It’s an honor.

Thank you. Oh, and let me tell you one other thing. You will appreciate this….When I came down to Nashville on my own for the first time when I knew I was going to make the movie, I wanted very much to meet Emmylou Harris. Not just because who wouldn’t want to meet Emmylou Harris, but I knew we’d be working together and I really wanted to meet her. My trip was made to coincide with a time she was going to be in town and I invited her to have a coffee and what have you. And I got invited instead by Emmylou Harris to come to her home for dinner with my 15-year-old son, who adores Emmylou Harris.

I’ll tell you something, man. We arrived, and another car pulled in and a woman gets out of the car and starts walking in, and I said, “Oh my God, that’s Gillian Welch!” So we go inside: Buddy Miller’s in there, Guy Clark’s in there. There are about 16 people, and after dinner we all go into the living room and they do a guitar pull. So my son and I are sitting on a couch in Emmylou Harris’ house right next to Buddy Miller! It was just so, so exciting. (laughs) It’s rich terrain, man.

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