Canal Place After the Sundance screening of Neil Young: Heart of Gold, director Jonathan Demme and Neil Young sat down with me and a few other journalists to chat up the film. Is Demme a fan of concert films in general? "Oh, like U2: The Zoo Tour is great. One that was out there -- it's the one that David Byrne kept saying to me, irritatingly, like, 'Well, this (Stop Making Sense) better be almost as good as Rust Never Sleeps or you're dead!' And I was like, 'OK, you know, can we just try to do our best?' He kept wavin' Rust Never Sleeps at me."
Says Demme about Heart of Gold: "I did something I've never done before. I said to our editor, 'I want to see a first cut the day after tomorrow,' and they were still syncing and stuff. I said, 'Take your best close-up of Neil from every song, just cut them together, 'cause it's in a way the only shot we really need.' [In Stop Making Sense], I was much more interested in visualizing just the general -- I loved the diversity of that band. The power of the close-up was the big difference here. But that's what I love to use in fictional movies."
Young had plenty of creative input, too, from the outset: "We talked about whether we were gonna go to Canada. ... We were talking all about architecture, and how buildings were bein' torn down without respect to the past, people were gonna be sorry about what they were doing, and really, why does everything have to be so temporary? We were talking about all these themes that were kinda running through this movie."
The movie's band, says Demme, "to me is not a band -- it's a bunch of characters. It's vital that their relationships become more and more evident, or you're not goin' anyplace. I thought, 'We're not gonna cut a lot, we're gonna let people get lost in the moment. We're not gonna move the camera around for that sorta generic energy that a camera move brings and ultimately doesn't take you anywhere -- and gets drained of any energy anyway, because repetition nullifies that. Ellen Kuras is gonna light it up beautifully, we're gonna pick really great angles that favor Neil and his expressiveness, that favor the relationships, that tie everybody in together, and let it rip!'"
"It's not a documentary," notes Young. "Every song we treated differently. We moved everybody around for every song. We had 10 days' rehearsal, 14 hours a day -- right up to the Ryman (the film venue), we were still movin' the musicians around." Young credits Demme's long lenses with preserving an ambience comparable to his early days, when it was just him sitting on a stool conversing with the 10 or 15 people in the club. I compare Demme's camera to R.W. Emerson's transcendental, all-seeing, transparent "floating eyeball," immersed in what's all around it. "Yeah!" says Young. "It's a little fluttering butterfly right in front of the -- how could this thing get so close, you know? It's right in front. You're seeing all this close-up stuff all the time, and so you're really there. There's another audience -- the spirit audience there, the ghost audience from the Ryman, and who knows what year? You don't see them, you feel them, and they're there, and then they're interacting with the audience. It's like a live jam! The two audiences are making noises together."
Was Young involved in the film's postproduction? "Yeah, I dropped in on the editing process. Several times." "Yeah, I'll say!" Demme says, guffawing. "Sittin' there over the shoulder a little bit." Sometimes, Young says, "I'd be like pullin' my hair out 'cause I knew that I screwed up the take, that's why they had to cut away. But Jonathan has a feel of that, which helps. He could tell what was right for the overall picture. He has a sense of how much to give and when to give it, so that people get involved in this emotional avalanche that happens."
Demme and Young first worked together when Young contributed an Oscar-nominated song to 1993's Philadelphia. Young wanted him for Greendale, but things kept deferring their collaboration until now -- which I suggest is the ideal time, when Young is at a career peak and thinking about preserving his art for posterity. "Yeah, it had its own moment," says Young. "It's just driven by circumstance. Everything came together for us, and we didn't fight it."
- Director Jonathan Demme, says Neil Young, "has a sense of how much to give and when to give it, so that people get involved in this emotional avalanche that happens."