I didn’t realize it until reading a little about this movie, but there have been many Neil Young concert films. Neil Young: Heart of Gold documents a concert from 2005 (actually it was put together from two concerts on back-to-back nights).
The relevant context is that earlier in 2005, Young had been diagnosed with a brain aneurysm and had had to undergo surgery. He very rapidly put together and recorded an album called Prairie Wind, and then after surviving the aneurysm and the surgery, several months later he performed the album live at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
Not only was he dealing with his own medical crisis at this time, but his father—to whom he was apparently very close—had recently died.
The first half of Neil Young: Heart of Gold consists of the songs of the Prairie Wind album, and then in the second half Young performs songs from earlier in his career, including some recognizable hits. Mostly Young plays acoustic guitar, occasionally banjo, and once piano. He is accompanied mostly by musicians and backup singers that he has played with for decades on his albums and in live performances, including Emmylou Harris. I particularly enjoyed Ben Keith on steel guitar.
Prairie Wind is soft country rock. Not surprising given the context, the songs are mostly meditations on core values, memories, and mortality, performed in a mellow, often somber manner.
I appreciate the straightforwardness, the borderline starkness, of Neil Young: Heart of Gold as a concert film. There are no weird camera angles, special effects, camera tricks, etc. It never calls attention to the cleverness or artsiness of the filmmaking itself, never forgets that what it’s about is not the filmmaker but Neil Young and his music. Other than a very brief section of interview remarks by the band members and Young himself at the beginning to provide a little background, the film is all Young and his band on stage performing. Between songs, Young sometimes provides a short introduction to the next song.
I am a low level Neil Young fan. I’m slightly more familiar with his work than just the handful of his songs that got the most radio play, but I have not followed his career closely and there is far more he has recorded that I have never heard than that I have. I have a moderately favorable opinion of what little I know of his material, but he isn’t an artist that has had a big impact on my life.
Beyond his music, I certainly respect that he seems to be someone who has used his money and fame to do some good in the world, from opposing unjust wars and racism, to supporting environmentalism, to seeking economic justice and relief for those getting the short end of the stick, especially farmers.
I have mixed feelings about debuting new material in a concert. In the abstract, I respect a performer who doesn’t just play the same hits over and over and over and over again that people are familiar with and expect to hear. I think an artist should play what they most want to play, the songs that have the most meaning for them at this point in their lives, which is a lot more likely to be new songs, or less well known songs, than old standbys they’ve performed a million times.
However, it almost always takes time for a new song to grow on me. It’s very rare I’ll hear a song for the first time and really like it. So even though I’d rather not be that way, I suppose I’m one of the many people who enjoys a concert more the more “hits” I’m familiar with it contains.
With this Nashville concert, I found the Prairie Wind selections pleasant, and when I focused on the lyrics I appreciated that they felt very much from the heart. And it may be that if I listened to these songs five or ten times each, some would emerge as favorites. (There are a couple of them that I thought most had that potential.) But when you get right down to it, I’m sure I enjoyed “Heart of Gold,” “Old Man,” and “The Needle and the Damage Done” from the second half of the concert the most.
It’s possible I’ll delve deeper into Neil Young after seeing Neil Young: Heart of Gold, checking out some of his albums, including I suppose Prairie Wind itself. I would like to listen more closely to his lyrics especially, as he strikes me as a thoughtful artist with considerable depth. That’s only a maybe though; I don’t feel strongly inclined in that direction immediately after seeing this film. I usually don’t after seeing a concert film, one exception being that after seeing A Skin Too Few about Nick Drake, I picked up the box set of the little material he recorded in his brief life, and have since become a big fan of his music.
But more common is my more modest reaction to Neil Young: Heart of Gold: “I kind of like this guy, maybe a little more than I realized before I watched this. It might be worth exploring his music sometime in the future.”