“There is a ton in North Ontario,” Neil Young sings in “Helpless,” one of his most famous songs. That town is Omemee, where the singer-songwriter spent many of his formative years and where the new documentary “Neil Young Journeys” begins with, as he says in the song, “With dream comfort memory to spare.”
In their third collaboration Young and director Jonathan Demme take a memory filled road trip through Ontario in one of Young’s classic cars, a 1956 Ford Crown Victoria. At the end of the road is a two-night stand at the iconic Massey Hall, footage of which is interspersed throughout. Early on he says of his old hometown, “It’s all gone but it’s still in my head.” He talks about eating tar off the road after being told it would taste like gum, about blowing up a turtle, (This was long before my eco days,” he laughs), and the school’s town, dedicated to his father but this isn’t strictly just a walk down memory lane.
On display is a vital artist who sprinkles his set list with old favorites like “My, My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue),” “Ohio,” and “Helpless” but focuses on new material from his 2010 album, “Le Noise.” When he sings, “I’ve been in love and I’ve seen a lot of war,” in the new song “Love and War” it feels like an artist continuing a life-long tradition of singing personal, confessional songs about deeply felt convictions. It has a link to the past but feels remarkably current and vibrant.
Director Demme has a feel for music documentaries. Aside from his work with Young, (“Heart of Gold” and “Trunk Show”), he also directed the classic Talking Heads doc “Stop Making Sense.” His films are to music videos what vids are to Andy Warhol’s “Empire” (Google it!).
That is, he doesn’t overwhelm the pure honesty of Young’s performance with flashy camera work or special effects. Demme’s camera is an observer—sometimes, a very up-close-and-personal-observer with shots so tight they look like something you might see in a dentistry textbook—simply there to capture the sounds created by one man and one guitar on a stage he has played on many times. Only once, during “Ohio,” does Demme let his guard down when he gets ham-fisted with visuals.
In the film Young says, “You don’t have to worry when you lose friends because they’re still in your head and heart,” and I couldn’t help but think that “Neil Young’s Journeys” is exactly about that—memory with heart.