What separates a documentary about a musical artist performing on-stage from simply being a live concert video? Neil Young Journeys will definitely and inadvertently pose that question to every viewer, since the majority of the film is concert footage. Some will feel that to be considered a documentary a film must provide certain aspects, like interviews that offer context. Others may argue broadly that all concert videos can be considered documentaries. Whichever side of the argument a viewer may fall on, this much is clear: Neil Young’s music is provocative, his performance is heartfelt and his talent is undeniable. Neil Young Journeys is worth seeing for any music lover.
In 2011, Neil Young drove from Omemee, Ontario to downtown Toronto where he delivered a very intimate performance at Massey Hall. Along for the ride was veteran filmmaker and longtime collaborator Jonathan Demme, who captured Young’s thoughts and stories while they drove. Demme and his team also filmed the concert, where Young performed alone on-stage.
Neil Young Journeys doesn’t really work as a documentary. It starts off well and good with Young and his brother being introduced at the beginning of the drive so that the audience understands who’s involved in the caravan. Then there’s some scenic driving around Young’s hometown where he points out a few personal landmarks and why they’re significant to him. Unfortunately, these segments are so brief, that they hardly provide any real insight into Neil Young other than a few comedic morsels about his childhood, like mixing explosives with animals, and the outrageous things he would do for money. These superficial tidbits are made even less relevant when the film switches to the concert footage and displays each song in its entirety. In one instance of ridiculousness, after several songs in a row, the film cuts back to the “documentary” part just long enough for Young to comment on the speed at which his brother is leading the tour. “Not too fast, not too slow.” Then it’s back to the concert for more songs!
For those who are not already very familiar with Neil Young’s work, it’s disappointing that Neil Young Journeys does almost nothing to provide explanations or context to the songs featured here. In “Ohio”, a song about the death of four Kent State University war protestors, Demme inserts archival footage from the shooting, including some text and portraits of the victims. A few other songs include footage of Young’s family. Unfortunately, some of the lyrics are esoteric, like in “Leia”, and an interview explaining the origin of the song would have gone a long way. The dearth of context is rampant throughout the film; it seems obvious that Young has a bone to pick with United States over its treatment of Native Americans – on Young’s piano is a sticker of a Native American behind bars composed of the red stripes of the United States flag – but Young’s feelings and thoughts on the matter are never explored beyond the music.
Regrettably, the concert portion of the film, which is the vast majority, isn’t very interesting to watch either. Because Young performs alone on-stage, there isn’t much to look at, and Demme seems to purposefully omit any visuals of the crowd. All that’s left is to singularly focus on Young, which becomes visually uninteresting quickly. Even Demme seems to struggle with filming him creatively as Demme places cameras in ironic places, like directly beneath Young’s microphone. Unfortunately, most of these creative angles don’t work or depreciate rapidly. The microphone camera only captures the bottom half of Young’s face, which swallows the screen and feels very oppressive. At one point, a bit of spittle lands on the lens, and the audience is forced to watch the movie through it for uncomfortably too long. Another unfortunate angle showcases Young’s extensive bridgework whenever he opened his mouth. Traditional shots would probably have served the concert portion much better.
Neil Young Journeys will most likely not qualify as a documentary for many viewers, but it’s still watchable – especially for fans. There’s an authenticity to Neil Young’s music and performance that’s easy to latch onto, even if it’s something audiences might never listen to again. Also, while there isn’t much about Young revealed in this film, it’s also refreshing to see the artist in a natural setting, and without the pressure to perform. In that light, he comes off as just an ordinary person, which is no doubt why his music is so approachable.