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"There is a town in north Ontario," begins one of Neil Young's most famous songs, "Helpless."
The north-Ontario town is called Omemee, and it's where Young's latest movie with director Jonathan Demme begins. "Neil Young Journeys" has the viewer riding shotgun with the famed singer-songwriter as he drives his 1956 Crown Victoria from Omemee to Toronto's Massey Hall, where he plays a pair of concerts to close out an extraordinary 2011 solo tour. The stories Young weaves on the road - some hilarious, some poignant - become the songs he performs on stage.
A few landmarks of his life remain intact. Some have changed drastically. Others have disappeared.
"Oh, man, it's all gone," Young says as he surveys the landscape from his car window. "But it's in my head. That's why you don't have to worry when you lose friends. Because they're still in your head, still in your heart."
The connection has never run deeper between Young and Demme than in "Journeys," the third in a series of concert films that includes "Neil Young: Heart of Gold" (2006) and "Neil Young: Trunk Show" (2009).
Demme's distinguished history as a moviemaker is characterized by his sharp affinity for music (he also has made the Talking Heads' classic concert film "Stop Making Sense" and Robyn Hitchcock's "Storefront Hitchcock," among his many credits), and Young has directed countless art-house and music-related movies in the guise of his alter-ego, Bernard Shakey, including the 2003 "Greendale." Their pairing seemed inevitable, if only because they both see and hear music so well.
In an interview, Young and Demme discussed their collaboration:
Q: Jonathan, you've made three concert movies with Neil. What ground was left uncovered that you wanted to document in this film?
Demme: They're each very different movies. We would want to take a different approach anyway, because you can't find two music movies more diametrically opposed than "Neil Young: Heart of Gold" and "Neil Young: Trunk Show." It's a given we don't want to resemble either of those films. All our attention was on doing a great job, becoming one cinematically with this great show he was giving. Then I realized he's finishing this tour in Ontario and you think of that line, "There is a town in north Ontario," and you think, where is that specific little town? Does it exist? It's Omemee. That's the town in north Ontario where Neil grew up. And he's going to Toronto, Massey Hall, a historic place where he's played some of his greatest concerts. It was an organic opportunity that couldn't be ignored because these songs were particularly up close, personal, very autobiographical.
Q: Neil, how often do you actually drive yourself to shows?
Young: Actually, during that tour I was doing a lot of driving. I had the electric car on a bunch of dates - the LincVolt. Usually I have somebody in the car with me, sometimes I have my kids with me. (His disabled son) Ben Young will be with me, and a caregiver holding him so he can ride in the front seat with me. I rarely go by myself.
Q: Jonathan, out of all the subjects and artists you could've focused on, why did you choose Neil's music to explore in such depth?
Demme: Cinema. Neil's the most cinematic person that I can think of. He writes cinematically, moves cinematically, walks cinematically, thinks and writes cinematically. I'm looking at him now and there is some cinema chip inside of him. (Young laughs). All these stories in these songs are different, and the characters he assumes are so different, he never repeats himself in the way he presents himself in the music. It's this endless kind of thing. I have lots of ideas for movies. I would love to do a spoken word movie with Neil. He's a human fountain of cinema. I admire him so much - forget the music, he's one of my all time life-enriching sources. I love his sensibilities as a filmmaker. I know what he likes. We're very free, open, when we work together.
Q: Does anything you see when you watch yourself perform surprise you?
Young: It's intense for me to watch, so I don't watch very much. I don't want to be affected by what I look like. I don't want to get too many solid prints of what I look like in my head. It's a distraction. It's something I would have to forget later in order to be able to perform. It's not constructive to the music, to be aware of it. When I see it performed, I close my eyes and listen to it, because I don't want to be distracted by what I see. I get lost in the music. For me, the moment and the song need to come together as one thing.
Q: The intensity in your performance of "Ohio" (about the National Guard shooting four students during Vietnam War protests at Kent State University in 1970) is particularly moving. I'm sure you've played that song many times, so did something happen that day that led to that intensity?
Young: Something did happen. You might be under the misconception that I performed the song a lot over the years, but after performing it with CSNY (Crosby Stills Nash & Young) soon after it was written (in 1970), I stopped playing it for a good 20 years. That song had a moment when it was urgent, and then that moment was gone. And later it had another moment as a folk song. It had a re-emergence as a folk song during this tour. When I would play with Crosby, we would often avoid doing "Ohio." But when I did the "Living with War" tour with CSNY (in 2006), "Ohio" made sense with those songs, historically. So I did it then.
Demme: I've got a theory about that. When I see Neil inhabiting that song, I don't see it as a reminder of history. I see it as a cry of warning. I see it as a new song, the offspring of the "Living with War" album. In a time where we've got overseas invasions, dehumanization of immigrants, greater abstraction of the confined population, drone strikes and stop-and-frisk, and I see Neil saying, "We're not that far from shooting our students again." I feel it's a wake-up call.
Young: Also the hypocrisy of us standing by in shock and awe over what's happening in Syria when our government has not apologized to the families of the four students shot at Kent State. What's the difference? Absolutely nothing. They're doing that overseas in places like Cairo, but we did that right here too.
Q: Music affects everything. What about your new album with Crazy Horse? "Americana" is kind of a historical time trip into classic folk songs. Was that a way in for you to make new music with these guys?
Young: I was writing a book, a memoir, when I did those sessions with Crazy Horse, and I was writing about playing those songs with the Squires, my first band in Thunder Bay, Ontario, in 1964. A band named the Thorns came through the club where we were the house band. And they did this version of "O Susanna," that Tim Rose, who was in the Thorns, arranged. And it really impressed me, so we learned it and played it in the Squires. And then we did "My Darling Clementine," "Tom Dula," a bunch of others. I was writing about that, so as I was starting a new album with Crazy Horse, we started playing those songs. It was pretty natural. And before we knew, we had a whole album of material that fit together.