There was a tiny camera positioned on Neil Young's main microphone for a pair of shows at Massey Hall in his hometown of Toronto this past May that gives new meaning to the phrase "up close and personal" – but it was all part of Jonathan Demme's plan.
In Neil Young Journeys, Demme's third documentary on the legendary rocker — following 2006's Heart of Gold and 2008's Neil Young Trunk Show — there are moments during songs like "Down By The River" and "Hitchhiker" when the camera angles are so close, Young's entire face covers the screen, cut off above the mouth or nose.
"I wanted to be able to pull the viewer into the narratives of Neil's songs, to really be there onstage," Demme told Rolling Stone the day after the world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. "Performance films can try their hardest to compete with a live performance — which we can't — but we can go in close and we can get a more emotional version of what he's doing."
For Journeys – the first movie ever to be recorded at 96 kHz (twice the sound data) – director of photography Declan Quinn employed six human-operated cameras and five icon cameras ("the size of a cigarette box") to capture this one-man show. The concerts were the last stop on Young's tour for 2010's Le Noise album, produced by Daniel Lanois. The tiny cameras were also attached to an organ and a piano for "After The Gold Rush" and lilting new song "Leia," so that the shot is through those instruments pointed at Young.
The interesting angles show every crease in the 65-year-old's face – his grey five o'clock shadow, the hole in his straw hat. There's even a spit particle that makes a prominent appearance on the lens and gives the effect of someone breathing on glass in winter.
"We had a discussion about when I spit on it and then it started getting funky," Young told the audience at a Q&A with Demme following the screening, to laughter. "And then the lights changed and it turned blue. It gets psychedelic and I was repeating some phrase over and over again; the piece of spit is going [makes pulsating gesture]."
"It looks like a $100,000 special effect," said Demme.
Young and Demme have known each other since 1993, when the director was working on Philadelphia, his groundbreaking blockbuster about AIDS and homophobia. Young wrote "Philadelphia" for the end. The pair's first major collaboration was Heart of Gold, shot at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, which required months of daily talks.
"I always just let him do his thing because his thing is great and he lets me do my thing too," Young said at the Q&A. "We have a lot of respect for each other and work together as a team and we talk to each other, so it's always fun. It's always good. He loves music and I love movies."
In addition to the concert footage, Neil Young Journeys gets its title from the interspersed footage Demme captured on their day trip around North Ontario, beginning with Young's childhood hometown of Omemee. Borrowing a 1956 Ford Crown Victoria, the pair follow Young's older brother, Bob, in his 1991 Cadillac Brougham D'Elegance, as they go down memory lane: his former home, school (now a park), Coronation Hall, Scott Young Public School (named after his father, a prominent sports writer) and other spots.
"I didn't know how we were going to use [the footage], but I checked and found out that Omemee wasn't terribly far away," said Demme. "I thought since we're going to be up there in Toronto, in Ontario, what happens when you put Neil in an old car, in his old hometown and drive into town? What will he say? What will it feel like? What will it look like?"
As they drive, Young starts remembering some funny stories, staring at boxes of daisies outside the hardware store and sleeping in a pup tent in his backyard. But some aren't as sweet: "I think I killed a turtle by sticking a firecracker up its ass," he says at one point. He also recalls Goof Whitney, the boy who would give him a nickel if he ate tar. "It's harsh at first, but it turns into chocolate," he'd tell the young Young. And there was a nickel if he went up to a lady and told her she has a fat ass.
At the Q&A, a man asked Young if he could give him an envelope from Goof. "Well, say hi to him and his brother too," said Young. "This is the guy that gave me that money to walk up to that lady and tell her she has a fat ass," he reminded the audience. "God know what he wants me to do now."
Demme plans on using the leftover anecdotes from that car trip as bonus material for a DVD, but he's happy with the way they "seasoned in passages of the trip" in amongst the concert footage: "Neil's songs are so powerful, that it's great to have a moment of respite after you've been through 'Ohio' and 'Down By The River.'"