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Thursday, November 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 10.0° F  Fair
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Neil Young Journeys needs a bit more direction
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Young strikes a mighty chord.
Young strikes a mighty chord.

Rock concert movies are a distinctly mixed bag. Filmmakers long ago realized that they can't convey anything like the near-religious experience of a great show, and better rock films come at the issue sideways. Consider Woodstock, which conveys in such marvelous detail that festival's ups and downs.

Or consider the finest concert film I've seen, Stop Making Sense, which captures performances by the quirky 1980s rockers Talking Heads. The movie documents a Talking Heads show not just as a collection of songs, but as a well-conceived art object, with a beginning, middle and end.

Stop Making Sense was directed by Jonathan Demme, who also directed the new film Neil Young Journeys. It's one of several Neil Young concert films Demme has made. I wish Demme had remembered the lessons of Stop Making Sense. Individual moments in Neil Young Journeys shine, but the film never gathers momentum, never feels like a coherent statement. That's because it's undone by a gimmicky conceit. Demme intercuts songs performed by Young in a Toronto concert hall with scenes of the star reminiscing as he drives around his hometown of Onemee, Ontario.

Don't get me wrong. I'm interested in Young's biography, and in what he has to say. He's an artist almost without parallel. Among rockers of his generation, few have been as focused and uncompromising, and few have been so productive even into advanced age. Bob Dylan is a peer, and not many others. But as I watched Young's tour of his old haunts, I kept thinking, I'd really like to hear him sing.

Because when he sings, he's wonderful. His lonesome tenor is an astonishingly well-preserved instrument. These are solo performances, but even on his own he creates a gratifying variety of sound. He strums an acoustic guitar, then makes walls of noise with an electric. He switches between keyboard instruments, including a pump organ on which he plays a chord so mighty it gets an ovation.

He pleases the audience with old favorites like "Down By the River" and "After the Gold Rush," and there are numerous tunes from his 2010 album Le Noise. Some are protest songs, and that's a familiar mode for Young. He's writing about the environment these days, and Demme highlights the theme in the Onemee scenes. New eco songs like "Peaceful Valley Boulevard" are pointed, but they lack the potency of "Ohio," Young's ferocious 1970 song about the Kent State killings.

When Young sings "Ohio," Demme overlays smiling portraits of the youthful Kent State victims. The effect is powerful, but it lessens the impact of Young's passionate singing. It's another instance of Demme getting in the way of his subject.

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