Jonathan Demme receives Coolidge Award, premiers “Neil Young Trunk Show”

by John Stephen Dwyer on March 3, 2010

Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme was in Brookline yesterday to receive the Coolidge Award. The award is given by the Coolidge Corner Theatre as the focal point of what they accurately describe as “an annual celebration honoring a film artist whose body of work is recognized as consistently original and challenging.”

Besides being a renowned narrative filmmaker (Melvin and Howard, Something Wild, The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia), Demme is known for his ground-breaking performance films. The most notable example of the latter might be Stop Making Sense, the 1984 concert movie that made David Byrne a superstar. Demme’s latest film in this genre, Neil Young Trunk Show, had its New England premier Monday as part of the Coolidge Award festivities.

Robyn Hitchcock, the English musician who is the subject of Demme’s 1998 performance film Storefront Hitchcock, was on hand to introduce the director and perform a song. Demme talked briefly about the recent death of Larry “L.A.” Johnson, a documentary filmmaker who worked with Neil Young from Woodstock to the present. Declan Quinn, the award-winning Irish-American cinematographer who worked as director of photography on Neil Young Trunk Show, joined Demme onstage briefly.

Neil Young Trunk Show, along with Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006) and a yet-unfinished film, is part of a Neil Young trilogy being created by Demme. Both men are in their 60s and are arguably at the height of their abilities. Both are consciously creating both art and chronicle.

Neil Young: Heart of Gold was characterized by Young’s pretty music. It focused on songs from his acoustic-based album Prairie Wind, though the encore set featured a run of Harvest Moon, Heart of Gold, Old Man, and The Needle and the Damage Done–the folksy early tunes which remain Young’s most popular. Neil Young Trunk Show has a different character. It’s unabashedly-rock heavy.

It’s also built with a clear artistic vision that doesn’t waver or worry about not being accessible to everyone. As Demme told Rolling Stone, “… if you’re not a Neil Young fan, don’t waste your time…if you don’t love electric guitar, don’t go.”

For the rest of us, Neil Young Trunk Show in a truly great concert movie. After a relatively quiet opening, Young launches into a grinding, growling, tooth-rattling version of “Cinnamon Girl”, one of the few songs in the film non-hardcore Young fans will recognize. While occasionally dipping back into a mellow mood, the show’s rock and roll tension builds throughout the film.

Young doesn’t look great for his 64 years. His eyebrows are unruly, his mullet-ish hair is thin, and his neck hangs in folds from a wrinkled face lightly-stubbled with gray. Time’s harsh effect on the artiste’s mortal shell magnifies his capacity for authentic expression. The lumbering contortions of his body are captivating. His imperfect voice is perfect Neil Young. The look in his watery eyes is thrilling and terrifying. The overall effect is sublime.

As Demme shows him, Young is astounding in the literal sense, i.e. he captures the viewer’s full emotional attention. In one of the film’s most challenging numbers, Young performs a twenty minute version of No Hidden Path. Young and two other sixty-something men jam on and on in a rock and roll explosion that sounds like an orchestra of chainsaws and grizzly bears. At some point, my confidence in this song wavered and I started to wonder how I felt. Then I felt a voice whisper excitedly, “This is so good,” and realized it was my own.

As he’s done in the past, Demme makes great musical performance seem easy to capture on film. A split screen here, a grainy panorama there, and not much else demands notice. His camera lingers long, but never too long. The cinematography never competes against Young’s music for attention.

Although the eye is never hungry for images, Neil Young Trunk Show isn’t really about the show all. It’s about the sound. Tim Mulligan, the chief sound artist, should be recognized for his role in presenting noise that’s both pleasingly clean and superbly rock and roll filthy. Enjoyment of this film could be severely reduced in a venue that doesn’t have an excellent and well-maintained sound system, as does the Coolidge.

The fact that folks like Demme or past Coolidge Award winner Meryl Streep come to Massachusetts to accept their trophies is an affirmation of their support for the superb Coolidge Corner Theatre. It’s an independent, non-profit institution whose audience is highly engaged in the screenings and various cultural activities that takes place there. In addition to other events on their calendar, the Coolidge will celebrate the Akira Kurosawa Centennial with special showings of Ran (1985) (March 19) and Rashomon (1950) (Apr 16).

If you want to see Neil Young Trunk Show before it goes to video, there are only a few theaters in the country where you’ll have the opportunity. One of them is the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge, a place that’s more commercial than the Coolidge, but is still another great local venue for films that are out of the ordinary.

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