“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” (which debuts July 13 in Chicago) 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: What does (Young filmmaking alter-ego) Bernard Shakey think of these films?
Young: Bernard Shakey never has an opinion on any cinematographer. He’s almost exclusively restricted to his own point of view (laughs).
Q: When you allow a director into your life in this way, what do you hope to achieve with the movie? What do you want your fans to see and get out of it?
Young: The goal is basic. I’m just looking to have a good day. I like working with Jonathan. We both love cinema, making pictures. No matter which side of the camera I’m on, I know we’re going to have a good day. We get joy from the same kind of things. We’re not worried about what the audience is or what it’s going to think. I’m more worried about what we’re doing, and having fun with it.
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: You’re coming to the end of an intense evening of solo music and you perform “Walk With Me,” and out pops this beautiful, falsetto voice. Do you surprise yourself hitting a note like that at the end of the show?