Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

By Devan Scott
When musician Neil Young and filmmaker Jonathan Demme last teamed up in 2005, the resulting concert film was the elegiac Heart of Gold, a contemplative, restrained ode to friendship and graceful aging that seemed to say ‘Maybe fading away isn’t so bad’. Trunk Show, their second collaboration, decisively says ‘Fuck that.’ In Heart of Gold, Neil Young was an artist at peace with himself, surrounded by friends and family, content to fade away with dignity. In Trunk Show, he’s a man raging against the dying of the light; determined, if not to burn out, then to fade away in the most spectacularly wild manner possible.

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Gracelessly bounding around the stage as if a man possessed by his instrument, Young tears into highly-distorted electric number after highly-distorted electric number, taking breaks only to treat the audience to the occasional mellow (but still somewhat tweaked) acoustic song. He isn’t pretty to watch, but that’s not the point, and neither is the film; shot on a combination of super 8mm film stock and HDV cameras, it’s as rough-around-the-edges as its subject.

Demme’s trademark long takes are still as evident as ever; a few songs are presented without a single cut, and several others with only one or two apparent edits. New, however, is the style in which the songs are filmed. Conventional camera angles are mostly done away with, and the majority of the show is shot handheld, with zooms taking us within what feels like inches of Young’s sweaty, craggy face. The often-erratic gaze of the handheld cameras greatly informs the feel of the film; that of a spontaneous, unhinged, almost thrown-together production.

It’s this feeling of anything-goes freedom that lends the film much of its immense charm. The usual constraints of a concert film are gone. No heed is given to order or flow; transitions between the myriad songs are even done away with, with one number often leading directly into another taken from an entirely different point in the actual show. Unlike lesser concert filmmakers, however, Demme’s carefully tailored the rather unique style of filmmaking here perfectly to the performance. Young’s spastic, frenzied stage presence is well-complemented by the more unorthodox stylistic decisions made here.

It helps that Young and his band are a joy to watch. At his age, Young is a small miracle of endurance and athleticism onstage, but not in the same way that The Rolling Stones are. His frantic movements around the stage don’t feel like those of a Jagger-esque older performer intending to ape his former self; he’s allowed his performances to age along with him, and every one of his sixty-four years can be felt. As a showman, he’s let himself become gloriously messy; he doesn’t perform his songs so much as he massacres them. Anyone expecting note-for-note renditions of the best of Neil Young is in for a shock: choruses are mixed up, solos are well-misplaced, and an entire verse of ‘Like a Hurricane’ is sung well away from the microphone, subtitles employed to pick up the slack. Young doesn’t try to avoid mistakes. He revels in him.

Regarding Trunk Show, Demme has said “if you’re not a Neil Young fan, don’t waste your time”. He’s right, in a sense. It’s an ugly movie with an ugly star playing not-all-that-pretty music. The majority of the songs performed are little-known, and the show’s centerpiece is a 21-minute feedback-drenched version of the obscure ‘No Hidden Path’. This is not an accessible movie by any measure of the word; if you’re not ready to sit through ninety minutes of rather odd sights and sounds, don’t bother. If, however, you like original and provocative filmmaking paired with great music and challenging performances, you need not be a Neil Young fan to enjoy Trunk Show.

And they say we're low-tech with 16mm.


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