After making the rounds of film festivals worldwide, director Jim Jarmusch’s “Year of the Horse,” a documentary that recounts 20 years in the lives of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, will begin galloping across the country on October 8 in New York. The film opens nationwide on October 17.
Combining footage of backstage interviews with Young and bandmembers Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina with live performances from the group’s 1976, 1986 and 1996 tours, the film offers a revealing glimpse into the band’s raw beauty and creative evolution.
“Crazy Horse has a kind of purity about them,” Jarmusch says, “partly based on the fact that even though they’re not virtuoso musicians, they have been playing with Neil for almost 30 years. Something happens when Neil plays with Crazy Horse that doesn’t when he plays with other people.”
Crazy Horse has been the one constant in Young’s often erratic career, and the two have collaborated on more than ten albums in 28 years, dating back to 1969’s “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.” Their most recent release was “Year of the Horse,” a live double album also recorded during the band’s 1996 tour.
According to Jarmusch, who is known for the dramatically oblique narrative style of films like “Mystery Train,” the “rockumentary” grew out of a series of collaborations with Young that dated back to the guitarist’s soundtrack work on his 1995 film, “Dead Man.” After finishing his spectral instrumental music for “Dead Man,” Young asked Jarmusch to direct the video for “Big Time.” Jarmusch, a former musician whose band opened for Echo and the Bunnymen in the late ’70s and early ’80s, says the impetus for “Year of the Horse” came from Young’s strong reaction to the grainy look of the video.
“When I started to make ‘Year of the Horse,'” Jarmusch says, “I didn’t even know what kind of film we were making. I didn’t know whether it would be just another video for one song or a half hour film or a full-length feature. The only thing I already had in my head was the way it would look, which was facilitated by choosing to use the Super 8 film to get a kind of rough look that was close to the sound of their music: raw and beautiful.”
The 1996 interviews and concerts Jarmusch shot in Super 8 have a weathered feel, with images occasionally so blurred they evoke the paintings of Impressionists like Georges Seurat and Claude Monet. The low-fidelity look allows Jarmusch to smoothly splice together his contemporary footage with film shot by Young’s road crews in 1976 and 1986.
“Year of the Horse” is also expected to smooth over the gap between filmgoers and rock fans, who haven’t seen a major concert film come to the big screen since Madonna’s 1991 “Truth or Dare.” “Year of the Horse” is the second such film about Young to be picked up for theatrical release — the first was 1979’s “Rust Never Sleeps” — and its distributor, October Films, is hoping Jarmusch’s reputation as an indie auteur will augment its appeal to non-Crazy Horse converts. “To independent film audiences, Jim Jarmusch is as much a god as Neil Young is to rock & rollers,” says October spokeswoman Sarah Eaton.
Highlights of the film include a heated backstage shouting match between Young and Talbot, an impish Sampedro verbally taunting Jarmusch about his “artsy” past, and a bleary-eyed Young counseling an equally-out-of-it Haight-Ashbury denizen who believes he’s a reincarnated Jesus. “Be careful,” Young says. “You know what happened last time.” The movie also touches on some of the sadder chapters in Crazy Horse’s and Young’s shared history, with remembrances of original guitarist Danny Whitten, who died of a drug overdose in 1972, and longtime producer David Briggs, who died of lung cancer in 1995. From his deathbed, Briggs predicted that 1996 would be the “Year of the Horse.”
“In a lot of ways this film is a celebration of the longevity of this band,” Jarmusch says.