'Heart of Gold' Gives an Old Man His Due

Words like “prairie” and “buffalo” mostly exit our vocabulary after third grade, when the “Little House on the Prairie” books get old and “Home on the Range” isn’t so fun to sing anymore. Leave it to plumping wailer Neil Young to revive them for us in log cabin ma-and-pa glory, hunched over Hank Williams’ old guitar with jowls drooping to the floor and an entire family of fellow fogey-rockers to back him up. Who better to capture Young’s fantasy bumpkin-land than director Jonathan Demme, the genius behind the Talking Heads’ supernatural ’80s concert “Stop Making Sense”? It’s enough to make a girl break out her old cassette player and do a doggone ditty.

Courtesy of Paramount Classics
Tonight’s the Night: Neil Young performs alongside his wife, Pegi Young, and country singer Emmylou Harris in director Jonathan Demme’s concert film, “Heart of Gold.”

The opening of “Heart of Gold” — camcorder interviews with aging bandmates talking about Young’s recent brain aneurism and other such middle-age-friendly topics — seems to signal a long, bumpy road ahead. But as soon as those thick country curtains open to the sweet chords of an unforgettably hypnotizing voice, we’re somewhere in a wheat field rockin’ on our daddy’s knee, and everything’s all right. Three girls in Western-style dresses lean in to harmonize, throwing flirty eyes at the man on the stool. Wide stage shots and lasting close-ups set the viewer centerstage in a trance, aware of every last horn and symbol yet completely enveloped in their steady unity.

Most of the songs that seemed corny on the album Prairie Wind are transformed into something beautiful on the dusty stage of Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. The empty-nester track (“There used to be a time when I wrote songs like this for girls my own age,” he jokes) is surprisingly touching, and a painfully literal tribute to his guitar becomes quaint and charming in a spotlighted duet with the lovely Emmylou Harris. The only time the cheese gets a little out of hand is during Harvest Moon’s “Old King,” about the best old hound dog he ever did know, complete with sniffles and howls into the mic. But hey, if you’re going to go there, go all the way!

And, of course, it wouldn’t be a Young concert without a few classics. Aside from trading in his scraggly bum look for a slightly more cushioned, country gentleman one, Young hasn’t lost an ounce of the charisma or voice (nor the werewolfish I-just-smelled-something-terrible sneer) that made him a legend. Close your eyes and you might as well be back in the ’70s, swaying in the love crowd to “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man,” except this time we get anecdotal punch lines in between.

Demme succeeds with “Heart of Gold” for the same reasons he did with the Talking Heads. The concert audience might as well be absent save for some applause, and we become completely entangled in the on-stage interactions and enrapturing musical contributions (including the Nashville String Machine, piano from Spooner Oldham, and vocals from wife Pegi Young and the Fisk University Singers). A broom sweeps across a mat for the swishing rhythm of “Harvest Moon,” taking us back to the simple brilliance of David Byrne tapping his foot to a small stereo beside him for the opening scene of “Stop Making Sense.”

Young wonders what Hank Williams would have thought had he seen the Gaylord Entertainment Center in Nashville on his way out of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. “But the spirit’s still here, and that’s what counts,” he said. And whether or not anybody else does, it’s apparent Young’s still got the spirit.