NEIL YOUNG JOURNEYS (2011, directed by Jonathan Demme, 87 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC On paper, Jonathan Demme directing a new Neil Young music doc seemed predictable if not redundant — another music documentary from the man who has chronicled The Talking Heads, Robyn Hitchcock, and Springsteen, no to mention his third film with Young, having previously lensed him during a string of Nashville concerts in the 2006 film, Neil Young: Heart of Gold and in 2009 with his rock band in Neil Young Trunk Show. Now after capturing Young’s sweet country and rock sides, Journeys (boy, what a lazy title) catches Young’s solo act at the Toronto’s Massey Hall, his electric guitar howling in a way they wouldn’t appreciate in Nashville. A third film turns out to be not only fitting but necessary for a talent as multi-dimensional Young, and listening to the over-driven tone of that guitar bouncing off the theater walls, I was reminded that the musician is still in possession of deep and mysterious musical gifts that should not to be underestimated.
Jonathan Demme has continued to make documentaries over the past decade, and in comparison to his recent uneven fictional films (The Truth About Charlie, Rachel Getting Married) Demme’s documentaries seem the more substantial work. With this, the third of a trilogy of films on Young, Demme does a great service by documenting the still-vital 66-year-old rock icon, this time alone with the electric and acoustic guitar, as well as piano and pump organ, pairing his classics (“Ohio,” “After the Goldrush”) with a surprisingly engaging selection of tunes from his 2010 Daniel Lanois-produced album, Le Noise. With his fiery eyes, frayed straw hat and his white suit jacket, Neil more closely resembles a down-on-his-luck dustbowl preacher than a rock star, but then again Young was never about the glamour. His wise and weary prophet pose has only fit him better as he’s aged, and these stark, hyper sharp close-ups of Young’s delivering his wailing vocals are inherently absorbing. Demme understands these songs and does just enough to keep us engaged while the music gives the film its hypnotizing pull.
You have to hand it to Young, who like Dylan has left behind a number of thoughtful and challenging films, from concert films Rust Never Sleeps and Journey Through the Past, as well as his odder fictional films like Human Highway and 2003’s Greendale. As Dylan had with Scorsese with his No Way Home bio, Demme is a director who understands the complexities that make up the artist, giving Young the most attuned cinematic partner imaginable. There is a little in-between song action, the film cuts away to Neil showing us around his old hometown in a borrowed vintage car. But while it is engaging to hang out with the legend, I found myself most thankful for the chance to hear Young’s music, always at its most exciting in live settings, filling the acoustics of the theater with the instantly recognizable sounds of his harmonica, piano and blown-out electric electric guitar. To see, not to mention hear, Neil play live on the big screen is cause enough for leaving the comforts of home.
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Also worth leaving the house for is a rare screening this Saturday night of Polish director Andrzej Żuławski’s one-of-kind film from 1981, Possession, co-presented by Exhumed Films’ Joseph Gervas. Possession is a film with many surprises, which I hesitate to spoil even 31 years after the film first opened. What I can say is that Possession is a film whose boundaries constantly shift and expand, leaving its viewers delightfully off-balance.
Sam Neill is Mark and Isabelle Adjani is Anna, a young married couple living in West Germany. When Mark returns from a business trip he finds that his wife rejects he and his son, and she cannot tell him why. For a good portion of the film’s opening, the drama unfolds as a Bergman-esque examination of a marriage’s disintegration, and the film has the caliber of acting to make it enthralling. Possession proceeds like an intimate European relationship drama and slowly the tension builds and Anna’s manner becomes increasingly hysterical. One scene climaxes with Mark chasing Anna into the street, forcing a car carrier to careen out of control, sending two of its autos twirling wildly to the sidewalk. Such cinematic spectacle seems out of place in the focused little drama we’ve so far witnessed, but the film continues to push us places we are not expecting. There is a mystery afoot, with detectives, doubles, and ghoulish murders, but those snooping out the truth of Anna’s secret life make discoveries that will slacken the jaws as even the most jaded horror fans.
By the end, the film’s logic purposefully breaks free, sending us into a psycho-sexual nightmare worthy of Cronenberg, Polanski, or Lynch. Not that Zulawski is particularly derivative, the director suggests the films fevered quality stems from the fact that he was going through a bad divorce at the time, as well as recovering from the experience of his last project, which the Polish government seized and shut down when it was 80% finished. Whatever the cause, Possession’s elegant potency will be given its best showcase the Saturday with a newly-struck 35mm film print. Rarely has a film been so elegant while depicting such horrors.
Also on the bill: three disturbing shorts films from Philadelphia talents, Isaac Williams, Eric Bresler, and Justin Miller Plus on display: rare Possession posters and press materials from local collector Jeff McGivney!
Possession screens 7:00pm July 28th, 2012 at the International House, 3701 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia