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Mr. Beaks Talks NEIL YOUNG JOURNEYS And More With Jonathan Demme!

Published at: June 26, 2012, 1:12 p.m. CST by mrbeaks

In NEIL YOUNG JOURNEYS, the sixty-six-year-old rock legend invites us to ride shotgun in his 1956 Crown Victoria as he revisits the "dream comfort memory" of a town, Omemee, in north Ontario. It's a low-key ramble led by Neil's brother Bob, who points his Cadillac Brougham toward significant destinations from their childhood, places that evoke distant recollections of raising chickens, eating tar on a dare and, in an embarrassing moment for the devoted environmentalist, sticking a firecracker up a turtle's butt. On their own, these anecdotes might be little more than outtakes from a straightforward documentary on Young's phenomenal forty-seven-year career, but when juxtaposed against the raw introspection of the singer-songwriter's solo 2010 performance at Toronto's Massey Hall, they acquire a gentle, melancholy resonance. Though the houses and buildings have changed or altogether disappeared over the years, fragments of memories endure.

NEIL YOUNG JOURNEYS is Jonathan Demme's third cinematic go-round with the musician (following 2006's HEART OF GOLD and 2009's TRUNK SHOW), and, given the nature of the Massey Hall performance, it's certainly his most intimate portrait. As on the LP Young was touring behind at the time (LE NOISE), there's no backing band. It's just Young, an assortment of electric and acoustic guitars, and an organ. And while Demme has come up with a few inventive camera placements (most notably on the microphone, which produces a memorably damp moment during "Hitchhiker"), the focus is on the sound. This is the first film recorded at 96 khz, and, if played at the proper volume (i.e. loud as hell), the added data gives the distortion of "Ohio" and "Walk With Me" a searing vibrance that's very close to the live experience.

Few directors get music like Demme. From his concert films to his narrative features, he seems to have an innate understanding of how a song should be shot or where a pre-existing track should be dropped into a scene. The joyous performance-art precision of STOP MAKING SENSE is something directors will be failing to recapture for as long as movies are made, while eccentric treasures like SOMETHING WILD and MARRIED TO THE MOB are riddled with genius pop music cues. And don't forget Catherine Martin's "American Girl" singalong introduction in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, or Jame Gumb blissing out to Q. Lazzarus's "Goodbye Horses" - two indelible moments in one of the greatest thrillers ever made.

For the most part, the following is a very music-centric interview with Demme. We discuss his love for Young's music, why he decided to shoot another documentary with the musician so soon after TRUNK SHOW, how he assembles his soundtracks, and, most importantly, where he found that t-shirt Tracey Walter wears in SOMETHING WILD.

  

Jonathan Demme: Where did you see the movie?

Mr. Beaks: At the Wilshire Screening Room.

Demme: Was it a good sound presentation?

Beaks: It was. In fact, I could tell that there was something different with the sound before I read about the 96 khz recording.

Demme: So you felt it?

Beaks: Oh, I felt it.

Demme: Good. (Laughs) It's pretty cool, isn't it?

Beaks: I'm going to feel Neil either way, but the intimate quality of the performance comes through. It's raw. It's got a real visceral component to it.

Demme: Good, good, good. Because I know the first time I saw the show, it's not often you feel, you know, your pants-leg fluttering a little bit. I thought, "I wonder if we can get this onscreen and into movie theaters. If we can't, we shouldn't make the movie." It's such an added-value dimension.

Beaks: And that leads me to my first question, which is what brought you back to Neil so soon after TRUNK SHOW?

Demme: It was the show. As soon as I saw it, it was clear that if we could harness the sound dimension, here is, in my opinion, an authentic master on the big stage presenting great work that shouldn't move us anymore because we've heard it so many times, and a body of new work that stands at the same level of the great old classics. I love the new songs. I think they're amazing. He's cinematic though. That's the thing about Neil. I can't explain that, but there's something about this guy. He doesn't walk around wanting to be, that's just the way he is: the expressions on his face, the way he crosses the room, certainly the quality of his voice, and the nature of the stories. He just oozes cinema, this guy.

Beaks: I think most people have a musician who moves them just a little more profoundly than the others. For some it's Dylan, others Springsteen... for me it's actually Prince. But it seems to me that Neil might be your guy.

Demme: Thank god it's not a contest. I would say this: there are certain musical artists that I go back to again and again and again, when you're doing your emails or whatever late at night. I go back constantly to Cornershop. I go back constantly to Mark Smith and The Fall. I go back constantly to the world of reggae and dub. Neil, I go back to because I love the music. Once I put my little Neil Young section in rotation on my computer, I stay for another song. The Neil factor is interesting: I'm the same age as him, and his songs on the first Buffalo Springfield record were just fantastic. You get songs like "Mr. Soul" and "Broken Arrow", and it's like "Wow!" I loved Buffalo Springfield as much as I loved The Beatles. Everybody loved The Beatles, but here in America, even though they were kind of Canadian, we felt, "Hey, we have our own Beatles now!" Then when Neil went solo, his albums were as good as anything coming out in the '60s and into the '70s. And they also had this other dimension, where he started addressing what it was like to be his age - my age - and addressing the things that made him angry that were going on in the world, and the things that gave him hope. These were things that I felt, too. So I had a really intense relationship with Neil Young long before I had the chance to work with him. He has spoken to my whole inner life story. He's got a very special place for me.

Beaks: It's funny, though, that for someone whose films were identified by their great soundtracks, SOMETHING WILD and MARRIED TO THE MOB in particular, you never incorporated a Neil Young song until later. Did you ever try?

Demme: No. The first time I tried was for PHILADELPHIA, and I got it. But no, I hadn't. I wonder why. Maybe because I knew how expensive they'd be? (Laughs)
Beaks: What's your process with needle-drop? When do you decide which song is going to fit in a given scene? Do you do that ahead of time?
Demme: Sometimes. When we did SOMETHING WILD, a number of the scenes in that film were played to playback. We would always burn a take so the actors could feel what it's like to have this kind of African music in the car and so on. But more often it's just so exciting to be in the cutting room: here's a scene, it's in a bus station in a little snack bar, and now "What's playing on the jukebox, and how is that going to change the mood of the scene?" I just love that. Also, putting previously existing songs on the soundtrack like we did in THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE was tremendous fun. Some bands like The Feelies are so cinematic. My god, try to pick one out of ten Feelies songs for this slot in your film. "The Feelies are obviously the way to go there! Which one do you pick?" (Laughs) I work very closely with a music editor named Suzana Peric. The first film we did together was SOMETHING WILD, and I love source music so much. On SOMETHING WILD, it was like, "You know, Suzana, I don't want to hire a composer. Let's just score this movie with needle drops." And we almost did. There were two little places where we just couldn't find something, so Laurie Anderson came in and did a piece, and John Cale came in and did a piece.

Beaks: That's pretty good backup.

Demme: (Laughs) That's the beauty of living in New York.

Beaks: In JOURNEYS, I thought it was an interesting idea to cut in the Kent State footage, and to really drive home the names of the four who were killed. It's one of the pivotal events of that decade, and yet we kind of forget the human dimension of that story. Why did you incorporate this footage?

Demme: Two reasons. One was because we've heard this song "a million times". And now it's "Who? What? Where? When?" Again, I'm of an age that knows it's Kent State. I saw the pictures in the newspaper. But I thought that if you look at the passion and the rage and the heartbreak that Neil brings to that song, I thought it was my job now to help viewers of this film to get what he's singing about. So we reached out to the families of the four Kent State victims to see if we could get their blessing to show their likenesses. Seeing those faces was very intense for me; it really put me in touch with what Neil was singing about.
I also felt the way things are going in the country and the world today, with drone strikes and walls being built to keep immigrants out of the country and cops breaking into Occupy Wall Street facilitators' apartments' to steal their hard drives... are we a little close to the moment when we start shooting our students again? For me, there was a cautionary dimension to that song that I really wanted to convey. "See? We all know those kids!"

Beaks: The other decision that intrigued me was saving "Helpless" until the end credits. (Demme laughs) Given this was such an intimate study of Neil, there was actually a tension there after a while. I was like, "We're seven songs in, when is he going to get to 'Helpless'?" Why was that the end credits song?

Demme: In the first cut of the movie, we opened with "Helpless", which had a great logic to it. We started the film in Omemee with that song, and then we were intercutting with Neil performing it. But you've got to find the narrative of these films, and as we tried to create an emotional implied narrative journey to the film, it just sort of made sense to scramble up the songs. I didn't want to start this film with any old song, because I think the new songs are as exciting as the wonderful old songs. I think it's important that people understand that Neil is an up-to-the-minute singer-songwriter. And "Peaceful Valley Boulevard" is such an extraordinary song, I thought, "That's where we'll start." And then starting in Omemee, we have the little phrases and stuff, and "Helpless" was never able to work its way into the narrative after that. The good news was that it seemed like a lovely delivery point at the end. Films like this, whenever we do a performance film, you have to feel some kind of unfolding going on, and this is how this one wound up.

Beaks: Are there any songs or vignettes that you hated to lose?

Demme: There's none that I hated to lose as much as I hated to lose "A Man Needs a Maid" from TRUNK SHOW. That was just such an extraordinary performance, and I can't even remember why it's not in there now. Also, NEIL YOUNG TRUNK SHOW was kind a challenge: "Can you handle the length and the experimentation of some of these songs?" I really felt it was important to try to make NEIL YOUNG JOURNEYS feel accessible, and to have it at a running time that would pass the ass test with flying colors, so I wanted to be kind of ruthless. Believe it or not, we have such a great "Cortez the Killer", and it's not in the movie! Neil agrees with this. He goes, "Hey, you didn't use 'Cortez'." I said, "No, and you know why? I feel like the whole film would've sunk beneath its power." And he said, "You're right." (Laughs)

Beaks: I know that you've been shooting this New Orleans documentary for a while. There have several great documentaries shot down there since Katrina. But I can't help but wonder, are the people getting wary of filmmakers coming around with cameras? Is it getting harder to earn their trust?

Demme: The difference between I'M CAROLYN PARKER and the other portrait films that I've got five years worth of footage on - and I'm hoping to start editing another one of them soon - is that we were there between the big events. We went down every three months for five years, and we made a kind of unspoken promise to the people who were sharing their lives with us that we would keep coming on a regular basis until they were back in their house - little realizing it would take five years in the case of Carolyn Parker. It's funny you say that, because I know that a couple of the people were surprised to see us come back. I think they've gotten used to people showing up when there's a lot of photogenic disaster stuff going on at the moment. And then there's this hideous thing you hear, which is "Katrina fatigue". Like, "We're tired of hearing about Katrina." Well, isn't that too fucking bad for us?

Beaks: Yeah, that's awful. People get plugged into the twenty-four-hour news cycle, and after a while they're like, "Okay, the worst is over. Can we move on?" But there's so much more to the story.

Demme: With the New Orleans stuff... the one that we're starting to cut very shortly is GUARDIANS OF THE FLAME, which is about the Harrison family. Donald Harrison Jr, the great jazz saxophone player, is the son of Mrs. Herreast Harrison, who is the primary subject of this. This is a family that is steeped in the Mardi Gras Indian culture. Donald's dad was Donald Harrison Sr., who was the big chief of the Guardians of the Flame, and a major Mardi Gras Indian. In all of these films, like in I'M CAROLYN PARKER, you see how slowly but surely it's coming together, but you're also going deeper and deeper into the lives of people, and getting these extraordinary biographies going.

(I get the wrap-it-up signal from the publicist.)

Beaks: How do you feel about Hannibal Lecter getting turned into a franchise? He's become a classic monster. Could you have ever anticipated that?

Demme: The focus was all about not fucking up the movie made from this great American novel. There was stuff at the time, like, "Oh, you've got this monstrous character and he's not brought to justice. That's immoral." There was weird stuff like that going on. I think by the time we got the picture finished, and saw how great Anthony and Jodie were, and how effective the film was... I think we thought we had a shot at it being successful. But when it was number one, that was shocking and thrilling. When it stayed at number one, and it stayed there for weeks and weeks, it became like, "What the hell is going on here?" And when we started getting awards, it was like, "What?" It's very funny. Have you heard about this thing called SILENCE! THE MUSICAL? It's great! It's very, very funny.
The immersion on that film was amazing for me. I know Dr. Lecter. I know Clarice. Don't think poorly of me when I say this about Dr. Lecter, but these are my friends. I have a very personal relationship with those characters. But the whole phenomenon is something that I'm outside of. I don't really notice it, but I love it. It's wonderful to have something click like that, but it's very weird and complicated. (Laughs)

Beaks: One last question: where did Tracey Walter's "I Don't Love You Since You Ate My Dog" t-shirt come from?

Demme: (Laughs) Oh, my god. That's the best question I've ever been asked, and I don't know. You know what? It would've had to have come from Norma Moriceau, who was the production designer on SOMETHING WILD and the costume designer on MAD MAX and various other pictures before she got to us. That sounds like a great Norma Moriceau touch. (Laughs) I wish I had that shirt now.

 

NEIL YOUNG JOURNEYS opens theatrically in New York and Los Angeles on June 29th. I'M CAROLYN PARKER is currently scheduled for a New York release in September, with a Los Angeles date to be determined.

Faithfully submitted,

Mr. Beaks

Readers Talkback

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  • June 26, 2012, 1:34 p.m. CST

    Cause nothing says cool like a Neil Young doc.

    by Tikidonkeypunch

  • June 26, 2012, 2:46 p.m. CST

    Awesome.

    by Gabe Vuotto

    I've been trying to find where the hell this peach is playing near me with no luck...

  • June 26, 2012, 3:01 p.m. CST

    I like them both

    by Kevin

    For Commies!

  • June 26, 2012, 3:22 p.m. CST

    Demme sounds like a great guy ... Very relaxed and interesting.

    by GINGE_MUPPET

  • June 26, 2012, 3:29 p.m. CST

    Count me in. Neil is the man.

    by Nice Marmot

  • June 26, 2012, 3:42 p.m. CST

    Great poster

    by hallmitchell

    One of the best i've seen in ages.

  • June 26, 2012, 5:40 p.m. CST

    "Heart of Gold" was a humbleing film experience...

    by ChaunceyGardiner

    Firstly, I was not initially a fan of the "Praire Wind" album that opens that film. Secondly, I was astonished that there was barely ten minutes of exposition with which to open the concert footage. I was so disappointed to be hearing not about Young but the Ryman Auditorium and the perspective of it seen from the artists who perform there. I wanted the film to not only be purely about Young, but also to portray the Neil Young that I'd grown to love and admire through the classic records. But amazingly, that film weaves some sort of magical spell, an intimate and rouseing view of Neil Young the father and, now, old man. By the time that you get to the "Harvest" and "Comes A Time" songs, you are already fully invested in this musical narrative of the man that the man became. And it is presented to all in the hallowed sacred spaces of that haunted amplitheatre, now more church than honkytonk opera. When I think of the "Heart of Gold" film I always see that backdrop of the country hearth, the invitation at its centre. And we realize what Demme already knew: that Neil Young is more talented a performer now than ever before. It is the image of a man, much like a war survivor whose past can only be viewed with close inspection of his eyes, now comfortable in his own skin, capable of carrying his history along with him but also with the capacity to lay it down when need be. My expectations were not only bettered, but shattered. I learned a lot about myself and how I view my artistic heroes from that film.

  • June 26, 2012, 5:43 p.m. CST

    Hard-pressed to think of a musician

    by I am_NOTREAL

    Who has put out a more consistently amazing body of work in so many modes over such a long period...I suppose you could argue Dylan (who Neil idolizes anyway), but that's about it. I could listen to Tonight's the Night or Live Rust any day at any time. And those two barely scratch the surface.

  • June 26, 2012, 6:29 p.m. CST

    Kinda wished you'd asked about his 11/22/63 adaptation

    by FarSky

    I don't care about Neil Young, but 11/22/63 is an utterly incredible book, and I think he's probably going to fuck it right the hell up. Prove me wrong, Mr. Demme, please.

  • June 26, 2012, 6:32 p.m. CST

    Love CSN, never got the Young

    by Kremzeek

    First, let me say - as a musician, I am not trying in any way whatsoever to insult either Mr. Young or his fans. This project actually seems pretty cool! But, I just don't get Neil Young. Don't care for his tunes, his voice, or the way he presents himself. I love CSN, but not really CSNY. I have the "Deja Vu" album - and love it - but don't ever listen to any tracks Young takes lead on. I know this is blasphemous to many musicians, hehe. And, again, I'm not trying to stir up the shit in a Neil Young TB, but... I'd really like to know the appeal. I just can't get into his music at all. I'd be open to anyone (perhaps i am_notreal) that can give me a few reasons to love this guy's work. I see a few songs here and there mentioned - I'll have to check them out. But I don't get how anyone can stand his voice. Sure, he can hold a tune - but I mean the actual way his voice sounds. It's so nasally and whiney to me. Am I missing something? Should I be paying more attention to his guitar work instead?

  • June 26, 2012, 7:07 p.m. CST

    ...he used to load the Econoline van...

    by gotilk

    I could never sing that song without putting on a Neil voice. I tried so hard. You cannot separate most of his music from the man himself. So rare. I hope I get to see this presented correctly, in a good cinema. I also hope his talks with Steve Jobs eventually turned into a concrete plan for the future of iTunes... Neil Young Worked with Steve Jobs on 24-Bit Audio Standard: http://tinyurl.com/7e7kn2l

  • June 26, 2012, 7:11 p.m. CST

    kremzeek

    by gotilk

    His voice was a turn-off for YEARS for me as well. It just took time. My band was recording an EP and the engineer said that we reminded him of Buffalo Springfield in a LOT of ways, good ways. So I decided if I was influenced by them, I'd better figure out who they are and hear some of their music. How shocked I was when I discovered I already WAS familiar with at least some of their work, without realizing it. I dug into their music and quickly figured out that the stuff with Neil Young was their best. That led to more of his stuff. And more. Now I'm a fan. So it's hard to say whether you will or will not eventually appreciate his stuff.

  • June 27, 2012, 12:14 a.m. CST

    Damn!!! Playing here the day of my surgery.

    by DrMorbius

    If this comes out on Blu, please Mr. Demme, please include all the songs that were cut from the movie. Especially "CORTEZ THE KILLER." Hopefully, one of these years, we'll get a dvd release of ... "Journey Through the Past."

  • June 27, 2012, 12:17 a.m. CST

    kremzeek

    by the dolphins are in the jacuzzi

    I can certainly understand your aversion to Neil Young's voice, and believe me, you're not the only one (my wife hates him). But if you want to know why people like him, I can only speak for myself, but for me, it's the passion and depth in his voice. I could care less for a conventionally great singer without passion or depth. Every singer on American Idol has a conventionally better voice than Neil Young (or Bob Dylan), but none have the quiet intensity and understated passion that his voice carries. If you like Neil Young's voice, it's because songs like "Helpless" conjure feelings of loss and longing. If you like "Ohio," it's because it taps into your sense of impotent rage over terrible, unavenged injustice. This is just my opinion, but at least for me anyway, my love of Neil Young is about raw emotion and the power that it conveys triumphing over the empty, hollow histrionics of conventionally better "pop" singers.

  • June 27, 2012, 12:31 a.m. CST

    I find it interesting

    by the dolphins are in the jacuzzi

    that all of the singers that Beaks mentions early in the interview as being people's personal favorites are on my top ten list of favorite singers of all time: Dylan, Springsteen, Prince and Neil Young (I also would have added Bob Marley). Prince, in particular, surprises me because I don't know too many people who think of him as a particularly moving singer. Most people think of him as a musician first and a singer later, and they tend to know him primarily for his pop songs. But if you listen to songs like "The Cross," "Free," or "Another Lonely Christmas," he's capable of expressing a wide range of deep and complex emotions. Beaks, you just went up another notch in my book.

  • June 27, 2012, 2:58 a.m. CST

    SILENCE! THE MUSICAL

    by Admonisher

    Awesome and hilarious!

  • June 27, 2012, 7:08 a.m. CST

    I can't explain it...

    by I am_NOTREAL

    If Neil's voice is a problem for you, then it is...I agree that his voice is not "beautiful" in a classical sense...but when I hear a Neil Young song I feel like he's telling me the truth. And in art I often gravitate to truth over beauty. "Down By The River," "The Needle and the Damage Done," "Powderfinger," just to name a few...I find it really difficult to conceive of these songs as being 'improved' by a classically trained, multi-octave voice.

  • June 27, 2012, 8:09 a.m. CST

    by noel

    "I never knew a man could tell so many lies. He had a different story for every set of eyes How can he remember who he's talking to? Cause I know it ain't me, and hope it isn't you."

  • June 27, 2012, 11:56 a.m. CST

    I saw this movie at tiff and...

    by Jackson

    just straight out sucks. I very much like Young's music dont get me wrong, but practically the entire thing was a concert that lacked much of Young's best and most famous songs. And the worst part is that they had a camera on the microphone and they used that camera for 75% of the movie!! it was cool for about 30 seconds until it got disgusting and Neil Young spit all over the camera. And the part that isnt the concert is just them walking there is no story!!!

  • June 27, 2012, 12:26 p.m. CST

    Thanks everyone

    by Kremzeek

    Some really great responses! I really appreciate it. (See, TBers *can* be civil! Hehe). Based on what you guys have told me, I think I may just look into his music again. I've noticed I can change my mind about a band or musician depending on what stage I'm at in life, ya know? And it's been a while since I've attempted to delve into Young's catalog. I think it may be time to give it another shot. I, too, love depth and passion in music (and film). Funny that I don't mind Dylan's voice at all, but Young has been a lot tougher for me to get into. But there have a been a few singers over the years that, at first, I couldn't stand their voices, but once I got used to them... they're now some of my favorites. This was helpful. Thanks, all.

  • June 27, 2012, 9:31 p.m. CST

    Neil's --Dead Man-- Soundtrack Is Just Incredible

    by thelordofhell

    It just puts me in a trance every time I listen to it

  • June 27, 2012, 10:49 p.m. CST

    "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World"

    by DrMorbius