At this point, it seems fair to say that Jonathan Demme is the finest director of concert documentaries working today. Where most are content to simply turn the camera on and see what happens, Demme, in such films as the Talking Heads doc Stop Making Sense (still widely and correctly considered the greatest concert film ever made) and Storefront Hitchcock, consistently brings a striking formal and thematic rigor to the form. Even Demme’s narrative films evince a strong musical sense (for evidence, see the bravura wedding sequence in Rachel Getting Married, which has all the freewheeling, joyous energy of his documentary work). In 2006, Demme released Neil Young: Heart of Gold, a document of a concert Young gave shortly after suffering the brain aneurysm that nearly killed him. The film is a marvel, using theatrical and filmic techniques to express Young’s awareness of his own mortality and a sense of love and community shared between performers.
Heart of Gold was the first in a proposed trilogy of Neil Young films directed by Demme. Neil Young Trunk Show, a filmed performance that took place in Pennsylvania’s Tower Theater, is the second. And while this one doesn’t quite match up to Heart of Gold, it’s still a terrific concert documentary, mostly because it documents a terrific concert. Where Heart of Gold found Young in a plaintive, melancholy mood, Trunk Show finds him mostly just rocking the fuck out. Demme follows suit, ditching the intricate, controlled compositions, editing, and lighting schemes of Heart of Gold for looser, handheld digital photography meant to capture the jittery energy of the performance. If Trunk Show is a slight step down from its exquisite predecessor, it’s because this style, while energizing, can at times seem haphazard and more than a little rough.
Despite the vague conceptual idea of Young performing, surrounded by items from his “spiritual trunk,” this film is far more concerned with matching the way his stringy hair bobs and shakes during one of his several epic feedback jams. And yet that’s why Trunk Show remains so valuable, especially for Young fans. The setlist of the show draws on some lesser-known deep cuts from his considerable discography, and Young plays around within the songs, improvising and interacting with his band. He looks every bit (and then some) his 64 years, but he still acts like a young hippie rockstar. The film captures one of music’s elder statesmen at the top of his game, still vital after all these years. While watching Heart of Gold, it was hard to forget that Young had very recently almost died; in Trunk Show, Young looks more alive than ever. It will be interesting to see where he and Demme go from here.