Neil Young Trunk Show (Jonathan Demme, 2009)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Neil Young Trunk Show.

criterion logoFilmed over two nights at the Tower Theater in 2007, Neil Young Trunk Show is director Jonathan Demme’s treatise on guitar rock – loud, electric, uncompromised.  His subject, singer-songwriter Neil Young, performs largely rare and recent material with a force and presence undiminished by his nearly 50 year career, still rocking the free world at age 64.  Bringing the viewer out of the audience and within the stage show, Trunk Show documents the trust and respect of Demme and Young’s more than 15 year relationship as collaborators and reveals the alchemical details of rock magic summoned through metal guitar strings, long takes, and the idiosyncrasies of Young’s voice.  Turn up the volume for this one.

Disc Features:

  • Digital transfer, supervised by cinematographer Declan Quinn and approved by director Jonathan Demme, with DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Introduction by singer-songwriter Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam
  • Demme on Young, Young on Trunk, a new video piece on the making of Neil Young Trunk Show featuring interviews with musician Neil Young and director Jonathan Demme
  • Additional performances by Neil Young at the Tower Theater not included in the film
  • Gallery of behind-the-scenes and productions photos
  • Theatrical trailer
  • PLUS:  A double-CD set with complete recordings of both performances at the Tower Theater, and a booklet featuring a new essay by music critic and historian Greil Marcus

Where is Jonathan Demme’s Neil Young Trunk Show?  Released in 2009 and meandering through film festivals and limited releases, Demme’s second concert doc on Uncle Neil has seemingly vanished.  His earlier effort, Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006), received comparably popular praise and promptly found an impressive double-disc DVD release.  So why not Trunk Show?  Demme has openly lamented Warner’s apparent apathy toward the film.  A Warner title finding its way to the Collection seems rather unlikely, however Demme’s stature as a filmmaker, his relationship with Criterion, and the total lack of a competing version released by Warner might give Trunk Show an outside shot at a wacky “C.”

With all due respect to Scorsese, Pennebaker, and the Maysles, Jonathan Demme is the greatest concert movie documentarian and Neil Young Trunk Show confirms it.  Recorded over two shows at the Tower Theatre in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, on December 9 and 10, 2007, the film contrasts with the fragile, acoustically-inclined Heart of Gold with a raucously mixed bag of electric and acoustic performances made up largely of rarities and more contemporary work.  Young stands at the centre of this glorious sonic mess, his commitment and authenticity an irresistibly magnetic force too powerful to be contained.  The centrepiece of the film is Young’s 20 minute jam session performance of “No Hidden Path.”  Occupying almost a full quarter of the film, the sequence is captivating, with Young surrounded by his musical confederates, pounding away at the song, wind-machines pounding away at him, an electric shaman conjuring a storm.  Andrew Chan at Reverse Shot describes the process of viewing the “No Hidden Path” performance as a kind of “religious conversion,” and his description is as apt as they come.  We promote Demme’s documentary as only a casual listener to Uncle Neil, passingly in contact with his material and generally unfamiliar with the works represented in Trunk Show.  “No Hidden Path” is, however, an epiphany – mesmerizing at first, then audacious, then astounding.  Young seems too old, too weathered, to persist with the song.  You expect him to eventually collapse under the weight of the musical windmills he tilts at, but instead he succeeds, overcomes, and then continues.

Demme, for his part, keeps us in the eye of this storm, eschewing the usual crowd shots that inform us of how great this concert is, and instead puts us in close proximity to Young and the production, leaving us to feel more like members of the crew than members of the audience.  Trunk Show relies heavily on long takes, uninterrupted shots, sustained close-ups, and unusual angles that doesn’t so much break the proscenium arch as it disorients it.  The viewer is not a part of the show, but exists within it – a kind of roaming, omniscient fan swirling around and between Young’s cacophony.  It’s a bewildering, but highly gratifying experience.  Demme maintains he had knowledge of Young’s set list, but no other shooting plans.  There is a feeling of improvisation and spontaneity in Trunk Show, of getting in the right spot at the right time as if by providence, and this surely supports the larger aura of authenticity that surrounds Young.  If Greil Marcus is correct that rock is necessarily exclusionary (and he surely is), then Demme embraces this ethic explicitly, stating, “I always tell people, absolutely and sincerely, if you’re not a Neil young fan, don’t waste your time,” and, “Second of all, if you don’t love electric guitar, don’t go.”  While Trunk Show doesn’t require devotion to Young and his particular sound, it is clearly a rock film, made by a filmmaker who appreciates rock music, and is geared toward an audience prepared to hear it played loud.

Stamping a wacky “C” on Neil Young Trunk Show would, most importantly, get Demme’s stellar concert film out for home viewing.  Further, Trunk Show would be a welcome contemporary addition to the Collection’s other rock-docs – Monterey Pop (D. A. Pennebaker, 1967), Gimme Shelter (David Maysles, Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, 1970), and Total Balalaika Show (Aki Kaurismaki, 1994).  We already know the Collection loves Demme from releases of Something Wild (1986) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991), so why not fill another void in Demme home-viewing?

Trunk Show LogoNo need to over think a cover design for Neil Young Trunk Show.  The marquee lettering used on the film’s posters would look fantastic against a solid black background.  We can go either way on stacking the 4-word title on top of one another so the case can stand normally or leaving the title in two rows letting the case read lengthwise.  Either way, you have a graphically striking cover that promotes the film’s star in big, candy-coloured letters.  Easy.

Credits:  Eddie Vedder is a great admirer of Uncle Neil, having previously collaborated with him and having personally inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, so who better to introduce the film?  The interview feature with Demme and Young is imagined for the Criterion edition, and the additional performances and footage are assumed to be available.  The esteemed Greil Marcus’s celebration of Young for his adventurousness and excess (“Neil Young doesn’t know where the limits are – he goes too far, blows it, overdoes it.  He takes risks with his music, his lyrics, his voice, his guitar.  Because he takes risks he gets a lot farther, sometimes, than those with more talent or better sense.”) makes him ideally suited to address this particular rock-doc.

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