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Neil Young: Heart of Gold (documentary)

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One of the major names in the soundtrack of my childhood is Neil Young. I never paid much attention to him, but my dad is an avid fan, and Young’s records were played often when I was growing up. So his music is familiar to me. I can hear something and say, “Oh, that’s Neil Young,” even if I can’t tell you anything else about it.

The movie “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” is a concert film that captures why Young’s career has lasted four decades, why so many performers who came after him consider him a godfather, why he is revered in every musical circle from country to grunge. The reason? Because he’s GOOD.

Directed with masterful understatement by Jonathan Demme (whose “Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense” is widely regarded as almost peerless in its genre), “Heart of Gold” takes us to the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and lets us see Young and his band in action, unadorned and without fanfare. There are no tricky camera angles or cool editing tricks, just long, unbroken takes and plenty of close-ups. Demme’s idea is to let the songs speak for themselves, and to give us a fly-on-the-wall view of Young’s intimate performance.

And what songs they are! Young performs tunes from his recent “Prairie Wind” album in the first half, old favorites in the second, with musical performances that are world-class but not showy. There are protest songs and love songs, some songs that are angry, some sad, some wistful, one about an old hound dog he used to have. With country-inspired instrumentation and a rocker’s edge in his voice, Young sings songs that are often poetic but rarely pretentious, and he delivers them all with conviction and heart.

He is joined onstage by anywhere from zero to 30 musicians and backup singers. Between songs, the screen simply fades to black before opening on the next number. Young, notoriously shy and reclusive, tells a few simple anecdotes now and then, confiding in the audience on matters such as his recent brain aneurysm and the death of his father. The details enhance the songs. You can feel the gravity in the heavier numbers, the urgency in the socially conscious songs.

In “The Painter,” Young sings, “It’s a long road behind me,” and the gnarled wisdom in his voice indicates he means it. He sings to his 21-year-old daughter about being an empty-nester, “Yes, I miss you, but I never want to hold you down / You might say I’m here for you,” and the love and tenderness in those simple lyrics are palpable. His song “When God Made Me” is a stirring, thoughtful rumination on humanity: “Was he thinking about my country or the color of my skin? / Was he thinking about my religion and the way I worshipped him? / Did he create just me in his image, or every living thing?”

And so while the music is often upbeat, toe-tapping and fun, it feels important, too. Demme doesn’t just record the concert; he almost captures Young’s soul. “Heart of Gold” will go down as one of the best concert films ever made.

A (1 hr., 43 min.; PG, mild thematic material.)