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.