There is a town in north Ontario -- and that is where we find Neil Young at the outset of "Neil Young Journeys."
The town is Omemee, where it all started for the rock legend in the late '40s, and it looks different to him in May 2011 when he's cruising around in a 1956 Crown Vic with filmmaker Jonathan Demme.
"I'm a little confused as everything seems to be in a different place than it was before," he says, in the borrowed car. "That's because I was so small. Everything looked different."
3.5 stars = Very Good
- Rating: PG for language including some drug references, and brief thematic material.
At 66, Neil Young has a lot more mileage on him, but amazingly enough, he's as potent a performer as he was in his early concert films, like "Journey Through the Past" and "Rust Never Sleeps."
This third film with Mr. Demme documents his two-night stand at the famed Massey Theater in Toronto on his tour for "Le Noise," wherein he eschewed side musicians and stripped the music down to its raw essence. The sound is exquisite and the vocals are vintage Young: a warm, crackling fireplace, a comfy old shoe ... pick your metaphor.
He does a half-dozen songs from "Le Noise," including the feedback- and reverb-drenched "Sign of Love" and "Hitchhiker," a tour de force that he had been kicking around since 1975 -- he had to live and love a little more before he could write the end. He seethes on "Ohio" as if it happened yesterday, makes "Down by the River" simmer with danger and will give you chills (if you think about Kurt Cobain) on a pained "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)." Young devotees will have to come here (or, OK, YouTube) to hear "Leia," a slight, sweet unreleased piano ballad.
Mr. Demme finds all sorts of creative angles from which to capture the action, including attaching the camera to the mic stand, putting us right into Neil's scratchy beard. For "After the Gold Rush," the camera is in the pump organ showing us a sliver of the artist.
The film is framed and the songs are interspersed with visits to his old stomping grounds. He points out the town hall, where he notes, "I think I killed a turtle in front of this place by sticking a firecracker up its ass and lighting it, as children will do -- so my environmental roots are not that deep."
He shows us the Scott Young Public School, named for his sportswriting father, and goes to the site of his boyhood home, devastated by a fire and now just a grove of trees.
"I slept on a cot in a little pup tent so I could be closer to my chickens -- I think that's why I was out there."
"Journeys" runs just under 90 minutes, with 13 songs, and leaves you wanting more -- and actually there was more, as those Massey Hall shows ran on for 17 songs each. Clearly, there's some extra footage to be had, perhaps when the DVD comes out.
In any case, what you get is conceived beautifully by a talented, music-loving director and a fierce artist who refuses to burn out or fade away.
It opens at Pittsburgh Filmmakers' Harris Theater on Friday.
Scott Mervis: email@example.com; 412-263-2576. First Published August 16, 2012 4:00 AM