According to the lyrics of one of the new songs he performs in Jonathan Demme's documentary, Neil Young writes about "love and war." And also about loss. Not just loss of love, but of friends, illusions, innocence, and youth. But he's learned to make the most of it. Young is old now, and in Demme's film, looking like a stubbly coot in a battered Panama hat, he's having the time of his life. So is the filmmaker. The third collaboration between Demme and Young since 2006, this may be the sparest and most personal of all.
That's due in part to the simplicity of the Young concert Demme records in Toronto's Massey Hall. Unlike Young's performances in the previous two documentaries, where he is backed by other musicians and singers, here he sings and plays solo on an assortment of instruments, the staging consisting of geegaws like a wooden Indian, and a backdrop that looks like color-morphing stained glass. In this combined man-cave/chapel, Demme's close-ups of Young are so tight that you can check out the singer's dental work when he's not spraying saliva onto the lens.
Equally intimate is the tour Young takes of Omemee, the "town in North Ontario" mentioned in "Helpless" where he grew up. In segments intercut with the concert footage, Young tools through town in a '56 Crown Victoria, pointing out places where things used to be, like where his dad sang in a minstrel show or where Young stuck a firecracker up a turtle's ass. More surreal than sentimental, it's his version of Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg,
But the nostalgia and weirdness end when the music kicks in. Demme records with a limpid purity songs ranging from the aching "I Believe in You" to the enraged "Ohio." Young's newer songs don't match the anthemic power of those great oldies, a comparison that becomes obvious when he plays what sounds like a riff from "Hey Hey, My My" and it turns instead into a selection from his 2010 album Le Noise. The fans are disappointed, but not for long, and when he finally sings the older song, he proves he's not about to burn out or fade away.