My first report from the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival is coming shamefully late. My only excuse is that I’ve been traveling, sort of all over the place—Tijuana, San Diego, Denver—and not every stop was strictly voluntary. Yet this sense of steady movement was not inappropriate for what constituted one of yesterday’s highlights, the Mavericks session at the Princess of Wales Theatre that included the world premiere of Jonathan Demme’s Neil Young Journeys, followed by an onstage discussion between programmer Thom Powers, Demme and Young, whose endearingly dry humour and utterly relaxed demeanor charmed the hell out of everybody.
Neil Young Journeys is both a concert movie and a road movie. It shifts between pleasingly unfussy coverage of Young’s pair of recent solo performances at Massey Hall—just a few blocks away from the Princess—and Young’s journey in a Crown Victoria from Omemee (“...a town in North Ontario...”), where he spent part of his childhood, to Toronto for the show. Along the way are amusing recollections of youth, like the one about the kid named Goof who gave Young a nickel to eat tar or tell an old lady she had a fat ass, some very pretty scenery, and Young’s confession that, despite his career-long obsession with maximum sound quality, the car is still his preferred place to listen to music.
No car stereo has anything on the sound system at the Princess however, which Young tweaked so that we listened to Journeys at 96 kilohertz—the first time in history a film was exhibited so thunderously. Given his subject, Demme most often smartly opts to hold images a long while rather than try to impose excitement through a lot of needless cutting. So we get extended shots of Young’s little beak of an upper lip perched on the edge of his harmonica and the tear in the pinch of his beat-up white fedora, or, just as memorably, Young’s face as seen through a psychedelically lit gob of spit clinging to his microphone micro-cam. The songs were mainly culled from Young recent Daniel Lanois-produced Le Noise and from his breakthrough period of 40 years ago. Young’s murder ballad ‘Down By the River’ ends with a wonderfully spooky and hushed “There is no reason for you to hide...” There’s a stirring rendition of ‘After the Gold Rush’ performed on pump organ and harmonica, and an industrial-strength ‘Ohio’ on a Les Paul. The show ends with a terrifically feedback-operatic ‘Walk With Me.’ But among the newer material the song that made the biggest impression on me was ‘You Never Call’—a song that cries out to be covered by Willie Nelson—in which Young repeats a line that evokes death as “the ultimate vacation with no back pain,” and spots a dead friend’s car in the parking lot outside a hockey game.
The onstage Q&A was a little too brief. It featured a very funny story from Demme about how he and Young first met, the happy revelation that Young is writing a memoir, and one-too-many old schoolchums in the audience who just wanted to say hi. Still, the atmosphere was palpably affectionate, imbued with the feeling that each of us has a road of differing lengths behind us, and we were all of us sharing a very memorable stop.