Jonathan Demme was one of the great music movie directors of all time.
Demme, who died on Wednesday after a long struggle with cancer at 73, had several music memorable documentaries to his name. The list started with the Talking Heads classic Stop Making Sense (1984), but also includes three Neil Young movies, Storefront Hitchcock (1998) about eccentric British songwriter Robyn Hitchcock — who also appeared in Demme's remake of The Manchurian Candidate (1994) and Rachel Getting Married (1998) — and Justin Timberlake + the Tennesseee Kids (2016), essentially a tour documentary from last year.
Demme also imaginatively directed the Spalding Gray 1987 performance film Swimming To Cambodia, as well as lots of music videos, including Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days" in 1985 and the Little Steven-organized Artists United Against Apartheid's "Sun City" that same year. And his feature films, from Something Wild to The Truth About Charlie, typically had great, creative soundtracks.
The second of Demme's Young movies, Neil Young Trunk Show, was filmed over the course of two shows at the Tower Theatre in Upper Darby in 2007, returning to the city where the director made Philadelphia and Beloved in the 1990s.
In 2010, I interviewed Demme when Neil Young Trunk Show was released, just three years after he shot Neil Young: Heart Of Gold in Nashville. An edited version of that conversation is below:
So when you finished Heart of Gold, did you know you wanted to make another Neil Young movie?
Well, I knew I wanted to get back in Neil Young’s world. Then when they went out on tour for Chrome Dreams II in 2007, Elliot Roberts invited me to take a look. The show was lit by (“Trunk Show” lighting designer) Peggy Eisenhauer, and it had a particularly interesting visual quality. ... My only reservation was I didn’t want it to be another Heart of Gold. ... With Heart of Gold, Neil and I were like Siamese twins from the get-go. With this one he just said: Do it.
Heart of Gold is so calm, and Trunk Show is wild and unruly. It’s sort of the yin to Heart of Gold’s yang.
Yeah, and we were honoring Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry with Heart of Gold. With this, in my head I was thinking we should really take a punk approach. Get there, shoot it, in your face, try to capture it. And the thing we were trying to honor was the unhinged spirit of rock ‘n’ roll.
You’ve been to Neil’s live shows, right? I finally got to see him live in the 1990s. Isn’t it true that there’s that thing that happens at a Neil Young rock ‘n’ roll show where you don’t want the song to end? You’re like, “Is this going to be the end? No, they’re building it up again. Here we go. ...” I love that.
In Trunk Show you captured one of those monster jams in its entirety. “No Hidden Path” lasts for 23 minutes.
When we filmed “No Hidden Path,” I thought, obviously this is too long to be in a movie. But what if it could be? So in the cutting room, what we wound up doing was justifying our choices by saying, how do we get “No Hidden Path” in there? There’s no rule that you have to be chronological, or acoustic comes first, and electric last. So we kept alternating, and altering the mood. But it had everything to do with justifying this giant epic in the middle.
Why did you shoot it at the Tower?
Neil’s thing was, “I want to play in theaters where there are lots of ghosts.” Not just rock ‘n’ roll, but classical, vaudeville, whatever. ... You’ll see there’s some grainy footage in there, shot from the balcony. Those are ghost views, suggesting the ghosts came out and watched a little bit of the show. Neil conceived of it as a valentine to performers, and performance. I like that and I was moved by it. The Tower was a two-night stand, and Neil thought it was particularly beautiful. So we jumped on the train from New York and came down, set up and shot.
With Philadelphia, Beloved and now this, that makes three in your Philadelphia oeuvre.
That’s right! And one in the 21st century now.
How did the Tower suit you?
It was great. Don’t we love those shrines? That great marquee. I hadn’t even thought of the need for an exterior shot, but as soon as we rolled up I thought, “OK, that’s in.”
You know, I love this movie. It’s a dreadful thing to say, but I have to say it. I love it and I feel like I’m sucked inside the music by the way some of these (camera operators) shot it.
The cameras linger on Young’s face, and his hands. You made a movie about Neil Young’s face.
Does everybody talk about guitar face, or is that just my wife? No one gives guitar face like Neil Young. And piano face! And I love him for that. He doesn’t care what he looks like. Zero ego. This is actually something he said to me: “I don’t have a bad side, because I don’t have a good side.”
You’ve got a lot of cameras working in this movie, but you never fall into that quick-cutting trap.
If you’ve got fantastic musicians playing, don’t you want to watch them? There’s been some amazing stuff done with the quick-cut style. But I just believe that there are people who want a concert experience — and want to trip out on the music.
Is there going to be a third Neil Young movie?
I’m praying there’s going to be a third. It’s not about matched sets. It’s about trilogies, at least in the world of Neil Young. We’ve bandied a couple of ideas about. We’ve done two, we’ve got to do three.
You use a lot of musicians as actors in your films. Robyn Hitchcock in “The Manchurian Candidate,” Tunde Adebimpe (of TV on the Radio) in “Rachel Getting Married.” Why?
If you get up on stage in front of the microphone and you carry people away with your performance, it’s not going to be that hard to talk good, too.
So what’s your answer to the question, aren’t there enough Neil Young movies already?
The stack is way too little. We need more. Absolutely. We need more.