"NEIL YOUNG JOURNEYS" — ★★1/2 — documentary about musician Neil Young; PG (language including some drug references, and brief thematic material); Broadway
There are moments in Jonathan Demme's new documentary, "Neil Young Journeys," when the saying "too close for comfort" comes to mind. The camera drops to focus on the lower half of Young's face mid-song, staying close enough and long enough that it's possible to identify color patterns of browns and grays in the stubble on his chin, to notice what looks to be bridgework on his teeth, to see the spit fly.
In those scenes, what he is singing recedes, upstaged by the stubble, spit and the rest. Given the influential singer-songwriter's always potent and poetic lyrics and that haunting minor key he long ago settled into, it is a surprising turn. It feels like an invasion, and an uncomfortable one at that. That closeness — between the veteran director, a seminal artist in his own right, and one of the great songwriters of recent generations — is what defines and at times undermines "Journeys." Young's almost mystical musicianship is what saves it.
The documentary is built around the singer's final performances in a solo tour that wrapped at Toronto's historic Massey Hall in May of last year. It is a nearly silent night except for the music. Everything is stripped down to the bone.
The set list, a mix of old and new, is a rarefied collection reflecting the rocker's eclectic stylistic range.
But Demme is interested in a few other things. "Journeys" slips out for a bit of fresh air to chronicle the drive the director took with Young from the singer's hometown of Omemee, Ontario, to Massey Hall.
This is the third concert film Demme has done with the multiple Grammy winner.
With Young, it is becoming a long conversation as well as an extraordinary archive of the singer's performances. It was better in the beginning — 2006's "Neil Young: Heart of Gold," anchored by an emotional Nashville concert a few months after the artist survived a brain aneurysm. In 2010, "Neil Young Trunk Show" featured performances and a lot of packing and unpacking of the objects that accompany him on tour. This film is all about the instruments, from Young's voice to the ones he plays.
On the road to Massey Hall, the mood is light. It is a brilliantly sunny day as Young and the filmmaker make their way through the Canadian countryside. The artist fills in childhood memories: his favorite fishing spot; the school named after his late father, journalist-novelist Scott Young; the land where the family home once stood. The conversation stays very much on the surface, no deep reflections, just the sense that he is content.
Back onstage, he is afire. In a worn white straw fedora, loose linen jacket and jeans, he powers through classics such as "My, My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)," "Ohio," "Love and War." The show and the film end with an electrifying version of "Walk With Me." This alone makes "Journeys" worth taking.
"Neil Young Journeys" is rated PG for language including some drug references, and brief thematic material; running time: 87 minutes