MOVIE REVIEW: Neil Young fans will want to take the journey, others will leave feeling ‘Helpless’

Neil Young Journeys


2 out of 4 stars

When not making music, Neil Young -- often using the name Bernard Shakey -- has directed and/or appeared in about a dozen concert documentaries. "Journeys" marks Young's fourth collaboration with director Jonathan Demme and it is easily their weakest effort to date.

Essentially a vanity project, "Journeys" mixes footage from two solo shows Young performed in his native Toronto in 2011 with footage of him and his brother Bob in their cars touring around his childhood stomping grounds prior to the shows. As with all of Young's films, "Journeys" is top-loaded with music from a new Young album ("Le Noise") but in this case is something only that the most dedicated of his hardcore fan base will likely appreciate.

Although a monumentally talented songwriter, Young the performer is an acquired taste with very limited appeal. His ragged, wavering tenor, staccato acoustic guitar and alternately piercing/crunchy electric guitar fare well with accompaniment but, by themselves, have a tendency to take on a too-raw demo quality. In the intimate setting of a small venue, these attributes can be a major plus for a live audience, but in the context of a film format, not so much. It's one of those "you had to be there" situations.

No stranger to the concert documentary milieu, Demme's previous Young film, "Prairie Wind" was a near-masterpiece and his "Stop Making Sense" featuring the Talking Heads is probably the finest movie of its kind ever made. "Journeys" finds Demme operating on sleepy autopilot.

The visuals for the 20-odd minutes worth of exteriors are brassy and over-bright and there's not a single interesting camera angle. Young's identification of assorted landmarks is beyond dry and feels like an uninteresting home movie. "There's a school, there's the house where the pastor used to live, here's a field." Wow, that's deep stuff, Neil.

The best that can be said about the material from "Le Noise" is that it's eclectic. While most songs are evenly divided between acoustic and electric guitars, Young delivers the wan "Leia" while playing a toy piano and another on an antique pipe organ. The material is mostly downbeat and/or overtly political ("Love and War") and Demme does nothing to spice it up.

The camera rarely moves and the stock is murky and dark. For some odd reason Demme thought putting a camera inside Young's microphone would be neat and it is if you want extreme close-ups of Young's mouth and facial stubble.

The sole interesting portion of the film comes early on when Young performs his infamous anti-war rocker "Ohio." Hearing the song without the backing vocals of Crosby, Stills and Nash results in an even angrier tone and the still photos of the four dead students along with archival video of the Kent State shootings leave a devastating impression. If Demme and Young had gone this route with the rest of the material and simply tossed the exterior stuff, "Journeys" would have been far more original and satisfying. (Sony Classics)