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'Heart of Gold': Neil Young and Jonathan Demme

After having its premiere at the recent Sundance Film Festival, Heart of Gold is arriving in theaters around the country. The film is directed by Jonathan Demme and was shot in Nashville, Tenn., last August.

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Transcript

DATE February 9, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Singer Neil Young and director Jonathan Demme discuss
new concert film, "Neil Young: Heart of Gold," and the songs Young
performed which were written and recorded at a time when he was
dealing with brain aneurysm
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Neil Young, gives a very moving performance in a new concert film
directed by Jonathan Demme, who's also with us. It was filmed in Nashville at
the Ryman Auditorium, the former home of the Grand Ole Opry, with a band of
old friends. The music is pretty remarkable, so is the story behind it. The
new songs Young performs were written and recorded in the period when he was
diagnosed with and treated for a brain aneurysm. Those songs were first
recorded on his album "Prairie Wind" which was released over the summer. In
the film, Young also performed some of his classics like "Old Man," "I Am a
Child" and "Heart of Gold." The film was called "Neil Young: Heart of Gold."
The director Jonathan Demme also made the 2004 version of the "Manchurian
Candidate," "Philadelphia," "Silence of the Lambs" and "Something Wild."
"Heart of Gold" opens in select theaters this Friday, but the soundtrack won't
be released until the spring. So the versions of Young's new songs that we
will hear are from his album "Prairie Wind." Let's start with "It's a Dream."

(Soundbite of Neil Young's "It's a Dream")

Mr. NEIL YOUNG: (Singing) "In the morning when I wake up and listen to the
sounds of the birds outside on a roof, I try to ignore what the paper says.
And I try not to read all the news. And I'll hold you if you had a bad dream.
And I'll hope it never comes true. Cause you and I've been through so many
things together. And the sun starts climbing the roof. It's a dream, only a
dream. And it's fading now. Fading away. It's only a dream. Just a memory
about anywhere. Just stay."

GROSS: I asked Jonathan Demme what it was like to approach Neil Young about
making a film at a time when Young was dealing with a brain aneurysm.

Mr. JONATHAN DEMME: The turning point, I thought I was contacting him at was
that he had just created what was arguably just one of the major master works
in this master's artistic life. I just heard these songs that he was sending
up from Nashville, and thought, `My God, this is really, to capture this stuff
somehow or other on film could be really amazing.' I responded to the
emotional dimension. I responded to my own emotions. I got very emotional as
I heard this stuff, and it just gave me a lot of confidence to pursue the idea
of, if we were able to stage a concert in Neil's ideal location, that would be
the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, with his ideal group of
musicians, that we would probably wind up with something that would be
incredibly singular amongst music on film and the music on film category, and
something that I know I would feel very privileged to be a part of.

GROSS: Neil Young, this is, to me, just an incredible part of the story. The
way I understand it, you find out you have this aneurysm on your brain, and in
a couple of weeks, you are going to get a procedure to fix it or do away with
it or whatever the medical term is, and so you decided to book a studio in
Nashville and record a new album except you haven't written the songs yet. So
you go to Nashville with the intent of writing these songs before the
procedure is done. Do I have that story right?

Mr. NEIL YOUNG: Well, it's kind of right.

GROSS: You tell it. You tell it.

Mr. YOUNG: Really, really what happened, I was at the Rock and Roll Hall of
Fame inducting Chrissy Hind of the Pretenders into the Hall of Fame and
visiting, and I was planning to go to Nashville the next day to record, and I
had one complete song and it was enough to go in, and I kind of had confidence
that if I was going to go in there and get started, that it would start things
going, and I would probably write more because I would be in a situation where
if I wrote it, I could put it down right away. And so the Hall of Fame came
along, and I did my presentation to Chrissy and the Pretenders, and then I
went home, and then the next morning I woke up and I was shaving and I looked
out the window, and there was this--you know how you get something caught in
your eye sometimes and it looks like one of those micro-being thing, a little,
you know, long, looks like DNA or something floating around on your eye, and
you're going, `Wow,' you know, `look at that, it's a science project.' So I
was--I had one of those, but it looked different to me. I said, `That's a big
one, I've never seen one like this.' Then I closed my eyes, and it was still
there. So then I started pushing on my eye, trying to move it around like you
usually would be able to, and it just didn't move. So I said to myself,
`Well, this is something on your brain, not on your eye.' So that became a
little bit--by then it had grown to cover half of my field of vision, and
everything to the left of it was just kind of looked like a mercury, silvery
kind of a thing moving around like reflections on water, and everything to the
right of it was clear as a bell. There was this line, a shard of glass or
something, right through the middle of it that was really vibrating. So I was
experiencing this, and it was becoming a little bit disorienting because just
having so much of your vision kind of out to lunch was--the whole thing was
disorienting. So I decided at that time that I was going to get it checked
out, and I had a doctor friend that I had just seen the day before for an
unrelated thing, and so I called him, and he said come on in. So I went down
there, and by then, it had gone away. It only lasted about 25 minutes. So
when I went down there, they took me to all these--the Dr. Positano took me
to all of the experts in fields that were related to this. And so I saw five
doctors, and they did a bunch of tests and things on me, and they're trying to
figure out what it was, and they never came to a conclusion of what it was,
but during the searching, they found this aneurysm which was completely
unrelated to...

GROSS: It was unrelated?

Mr. YOUNG: Yes. It was unrelated. It was kind of an accident that they
found it. And the visual disturbance turned out to be a visual migraine, and
now I just simply take a little aspirin, and that doesn't help anymore. Of
course, you know, I guess someday I will have to take a little more aspirin or
something. I don't know. Hopefully, everything will be OK there, but the
aneurysm had nothing to do with it.

GROSS: Oh, you're lucky.

Mr. YOUNG: Yeah. So I was fortunate to have a great neurologist who I'd met
and his name is Dexter Sun. And he is there in New York, and he told me in
his Chinese way that I had had this aneurysm for a hundred years and is
showing me on the big, you know, readout, that they had this big piece of
film, and you could see the thing kind of looked like Florida hanging off of
the United States. And I was looking at it, and it kind of scared me at
first, and then he said, you know, `Neil,' he said, `you've had this for a
hundred years. There is nothing to worry about. For you, it is nothing to
worry about. For me, I have to get rid of it as soon as possible. It has to
go. We have to get rid of it. It has to be gone from your head.' And I said,
`Well, how do we do that?' And he said, `Well, I need to make some calls and
we're going to set up an appointment for you with this surgeon, Dr. Gobin, at
New York Presbyterian.' So they did that, and I went. Dr. Gobin wasn't going
to be in for a couple of days, so I had three or four days between when he was
coming in, and then so rather than sit around, knowing that I had an aneurysm
and just sitting in New York with my aneurysm, I decided to go to Nashville
and do what I was going to do in the first place and then fly back. So I went
in there, and I recorded the "Painter," and then I recorded--the next song I
wrote was "I Wonder." The next day I wrote that, the evening after the
"Painter" and the morning, the following morning I wrote that and then we
recorded it, and then I wrote "Falling Off the Face of the Earth" that night
and the next morning and we recorded it, and then I went back to New York and
met the Dr. Gobin, and we scheduled the procedure for 10 days from that
point, and then I went back to Nashville and finished the record.

GROSS: So, was your life in jeopardy at this point?

Mr. YOUNG: Well, you know, it's one of those things where your life is in
jeopardy if you have this thing. And on one hand one doctor was telling me
everything was OK, you know, I can fly, `You can do whatever you want to do.
You've had this for a long time, there is no reason to change what you are
doing and just go on with your life, and we will take care of it here in a
week or two, and everything will be fine.' And other doctors were telling me,
you know, `Don't lean down to tie your shoes,' you know. `Have someone else
tie your shoes for you. Don't put your head down,' because, you know, if you
put your head down really fast and then bring it back up, there is a lot of
pressure happens there or something. So, you know, this is kind of turning
into a medical show, but that's OK.

Mr. DEMME: The great American actor Trey Wilson, who played Nathan Arizona
in "Raising Arizona," and I got to work with him in "Married to the Mob," he
was perfectly healthy, and he was in a restaurant one night and his aneurysm
exploded on him, and that was it.

GROSS: Oh, really.

Mr. YOUNG: Yeah. It's like, you know, if it goes off, you're finished. So,
and this was an ugly one. It's a series of bubbles that form, like if you
think of one of your arteries as like a bicycle tube...

Mr. DEMME: I'd rather not.

Mr. YOUNG: ...which is easy for me to do. So, I have a Schwinn brain. So,
anyway, I was riding along on my balloon tires, and, suddenly, I realized
there was this huge bump on my tire. And then, you know what happens is,
that's a weakness in the wall of the vein, and so the pressure makes this
bubble come out. And I had a series of six or seven bubbles on top of
bubbles.

GROSS: Gee!

Mr. YOUNG: So there was just--it was getting thinner every time it happened.
So it was obvious that Florida had to go, you know. We had to get rid of that
state.

GROSS: You know that classic movie plot, you go to the doctor, you find out
you only have two weeks to live or six months to live and the rest of the
movie is like, `What are you going to do with that time?' And it's like you
find out, it's conceivable that you only have a couple of weeks to live, you
know. And what do you do? You go into the studio and you write songs. I
mean, if given your choice, would that have been the thing that you most want
to do if you felt that your time might actually be limited?

Mr. YOUNG: Well, you know, there was really no way of knowing how long this
thing would go on, and it had gone on maybe my whole life, building to where
it is now. We don't know how long it took to get to where it was, but
something told me that the thing to do was do what you do. Just do what you
were doing before and just keep on going. So when I'm making music and
writing songs, and, you know, I had my wife with me, Pegi was there. She was
helping on the record. So everything was good. We were together, and we were
doing what we love to do, so we decided that's how we're going to spend our
time.

Mr. DEMME: I heard that when you were down in Nashville cutting the record,
in the midst of all of this, that you were eating barbecue every night and
just really, really chowing down.

Mr. YOUNG: No. There's no truth to that. That's one of those Internet
rumors.

GROSS: My guests are Neil Young and director Jonathan Demme. More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guests are Neil Young and director Jonathan Demme. Their new
performance film, "Neil Young: Heart of Gold," features songs that Young wrote
last year right after he was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm that has since
been successfully treated.

I want to play the song "Falling Off the Face of the Earth." You mentioned
this is one of the songs you wrote right before the procedure, and it's just
such a beautiful song and it's about, like an older person's love, not like
new romantic `I've just fallen in love' love, but the kind of love that you
have with somebody who you've been with for a very long time. It's a very
beautiful song. Would you say a little bit about writing this song, Neil
Young?

Mr. YOUNG: Well, writing "Falling Off the Face of the Earth" is really a
case of, I had a melody that I was writing that I had just come up with that
night, and then I was going to bed and I couldn't come up with the lyrics, but
I had a melody and chord changes. So I thought, `Well,' you know, `I'll just
go to sleep and I will wake up in the morning and start playing the changes
and the words will be there.' So, I checked my voice mail, and I had a message
from Jim Jarmusch, who did my film, "Year of the Horse."

GROSS: An early concert film?

Mr. YOUNG: An early concert film of "Crazy Horse" which is like the--almost
the polar opposite of this film in some ways because of the musical content.
But, anyway, Jim and I are good friends and he sent me, left a voice mail, and
it seemed, I'm not sure if he knew I had this aneurysm or if he didn't, but he
was, I think he did, but he was just thinking about me, and so he left me a
message and some of the phrases that are in the message, I played it again and
I wrote down some of the phrases that he used. And then, you know, in the
morning, I had the song all done because some of the phrases that he used in
the voice mail were in the--I just used them out of context in the song and
kind of opened up the door for everything else, so the chorus and everything
all just fell out.

GROSS: Did he say...

Mr. YOUNG: You know once you get started...

GROSS: Did he say something like feeling like he's falling off the face of
the earth?

Mr. YOUNG: No. He said I just wanted to thank you for all the things we've
done, you know. We've done some special things together, you know. There's
a--it may sound simple but, you know, things like that, little phrases that
are in the song.

GROSS: Well, it's a beautiful song. Let's hear it. And this is the version
from Neil Young's CD "Prairie Wind." He also performs it in the new concert
film which is called "Neil Young: Heart of Gold."

(Soundbite of Neil Young's "Falling Off the Face of the Earth")

Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) "I'd just like to thank you for all the things you've
done. Thinking about you, I just want to send my love. I send my best to
you, that's my message of love. For all the things you did, I can never thank
you enough. I feel like I'm falling, falling off the face of the earth.
Falling off the face of the earth. Feel like I'm falling, falling off the
face of the earth. Falling off the face of the earth. Falling..."

GROSS: That's Neil Young singing his song "Falling Off the Face of the
Earth." We heard the version on his CD "Prairie Wind." He also performs it in
the new concert movie, "Neil Young: Heart of Gold," which is directed by
Jonathan Demme, who is also with us.

Neil Young, I think of that as a song, you know, although you said that the
song, the idea after the song, came from a Jim Jarmusch phone call. In my
mind, it's a song for your wife. I don't know if there's any truth to that,
but that's how I hear it, when I hear it.

Mr. YOUNG: I agree, I agree. I think that--you know, that's the magic of
songs. That's what it's all about. Everything is connected in one way or
another and the feelings that one person may have, may be, may be when you
write them down and when you sing them, it becomes a completely different
thing. So, you know, that's the magic of art. That's the magic of taking a
picture of something and putting it in a different context with other
pictures, and, suddenly, it means something completely different. And that's
what Jonathan and I do, so, you know, that's just the way that happened. It
is a song for my wife. Obviously, I'm deeply in love with my wife, and she's
the most important person to me, and I was talking to her in the song, but I
was using Jim's words in some cases and couching them in a different frame
work.

GROSS: Then she sings back up in the concert and on the CD. Jonathan Demme,
since you have Neil Young singing and his wife being one of the backup singers
on this, how much did you want to make of that when you were shooting? I
mean, you could, like there's a couple of, like, very meaningful glances they
give each other, but you could have like really made a lot out of this. Do
you know what I mean? You could've, like how did you decide how much to
notice that?

Mr. DEMME: Well, a couple of things. One is that, as far as Pegi Young goes
in the film, one of the things that I really love about the movie is that for
the first several songs, Pegi is part of this preposterously, overqualified
genius backup legion including Emmylou Harris, Diana DeWitt, and that's just
on the female side. And then at a certain point in the movie, later in the
movie when it starts opening up, Pegi comes forward and joins Neil side by
side for a couple of songs there towards the end, and I can't explain why, but
there is just something very beautiful about the movement of Pegi in that
context, and it's kind of thrilling, I think, to see these two side by side
with their guitars, singing these beautiful songs together and certainly
exchanging glances, but, you know, with each other, and they're exchanging
glances with everybody else on stage, too.

When Neil and I first started talking very seriously about doing this film,
which we just always described as a performance film and not a concert film
because we didn't go down there to film a concert, we staged a concert in
order to film it. And, one of the things that Neil talked constantly about in
our early conversations on the telephone was just his tremendous regard and
love for the other musicians, Pegi and Emmylou and Ben Keith and everybody.
He spoke individually about every single person, and he would pepper our
conversations with--you know, Anthony Crawford comes up on that song and, you
know, that's the song that Grant Boatwright plays the electric guitar on. And
I would be scribbling all this stuff down and just really getting very excited
about the possibility of capturing all these strong bonds that exists between
these brilliant musicians on film and making that part of the texture of the
movie.

GROSS: Jonathan Demme and Neil Young will be back in the second half of the
show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We are talking with Neil Young
and director Jonathan Demme about their new performance film, "Neil Young:
Heart of Gold." Most of the songs on it were written last year after Young was
diagnosed with a brain aneurysm, which has since been successfully treated.
The new songs in the film were first recorded on Young's album, "Prairie
Wind." From that CD, here is Young's song "The Painter."

(Soundbite of Neil Young's "The Painter")

Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) "The painter stood before a work, she looked around
everywhere. She saw the pictures and she painted them. She picked the colors
from the air. Green to green, red to red, yellow to yellow in the light.
Black to black when the evening comes. Blue to blue in the night. It's a
long road behind me. It's a long road ahead. If you follow every dream, you
might get lost. If you follow every dream, you might get lost.

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Neil Young and Jonathan Demme who
directed Young's new performance film. Demme also made "Silence of the
Lambs," "Philadelphia," and the 2004 version of "The Manchurian Candidate."

One of the things I like about the way you shot this, Jonathan Demme, is that
it's so much about the music and about the emotion behind the music. I think
there really are a lot of, you know, performance films that are about how hip
a band is, about how cool and fashionable they are, about what a good time the
audience in the concert hall was having.

Mr. DEMME: You can forget that.

GROSS: Do you know what I mean? And it's not just about the music itself,
and a lot of camera work is so restless at these things, making you think that
unless the camera is constantly moving and unless there is an edit every
second, that you're going to be bored, and a lot of that sometimes distracts
your attention from the music, and I feel like all the camera work,
everything's done in service to the music and the emotion.

Mr. DEMME: Well, to put even more of a point on it, one of the bottom line
missions here was to make sure that every single lyric, every word of every
song, which in our film kind of functions a little bit like stories--Neil is a
story teller with his songs--we wanted every single word to be just so easily
accessed that nothing would intrude on, just a complete intimate relationship
between the audience and the message that Neil was singing about. And the
other thing was I wanted to make sure that we were up very, very close a lot
of the time on Neil as he was singing these songs so that his emotional state,
as he presented the stuff, was something that we could be very, very akin to.
And I definitely felt that, you're right, stylish camera moves and dolly shots
and crane shots and kinetic editing, all of which I love, and have been used
exceptionally well time and again with music and drama and what have you, but
certainly in the music world. I felt that, you know, none of that stuff would
serve us nearly as well as beautifully composed, beautifully lit--we had Ellen
Kuras doing the lighting, she invented new colors in her artistic
interpretation of what the songs meant to her--nothing could serve us better
than those kind of shots, and I really aspired to find ways and hoped that our
shots played a long time and were not interrupted by an edit to another shot,
unless we had something really worth going to, operating on the premise that,
you know, we're providing the best seat in the house so we don't need to be
cutting around all the time. So, what it all added up to in a way was I felt,
you know, this is kind of bold. It's almost in this day and age where the
family is always moving. Who knows, maybe the fact that we're kind of settled
in a little bit more and don't cut as much might feel kind of avant garde at
this stage of the game.

GROSS: Neil Young, when you went back to the recording studio, after the
procedure to remove the aneurysm, were you in the same mood that you were
before? You know you had had this terrible revelation about the aneurysm, you
had the procedure, you got through it, it seemed to be successful. Were you
in the same frame of mind that you were when you had started writing and
recording those songs?

Mr. YOUNG: Well, now when I shake my head--you know, they put some coils
inside my brain--and now when I shake my head it...(sound of
rattling)...sounds like--just kidding. Cheap shot.

GROSS: So you are not kidding about them...

Mr. DEMME: This is radio, isn't it?

Mr. YOUNG: Hey, come on. This is radio, Bob and Ray.

GROSS: But you are not kidding about coils inside your brain, right?

Mr. YOUNG: No, they're little platinum slinkies.

Mr. DEMME: He was actually shaking his head just then. That was the
darndest thing.

GROSS: But what did they put inside your brain?

Mr. YOUNG: Cheap shot.

GROSS: What did they put inside?

Mr. YOUNG: Little platinum slinkies.

GROSS: And what is the purpose?

Mr. YOUNG: Tiny little slinkies. Well, they're flexible, and they're like,
you know, they're springs, kind of, and they're made out of the thinnest,
smallest, most delicate platinum, and they--you know, they stuffed this thing
full of them. They went in with this, you know, radiology thing or whatever,
they watched it in on TV and they sent this thing up through, you know, from
my leg up through and into my head and packed this little aneurysm full of
these slinkies.

GROSS: And that does what?

Mr. YOUNG: Fooled me. Fooled my body completely. My body thought I had a
bunch of scar tissue going in there, so scar tissue gets more scar tissues. I
think my body filled up the whole aneurysm with scar tissue, and now it's full
of scar tissue, and there is nothing there. The blood just goes flying by
like nothing's wrong.

GROSS: That's really amazing. So...

(Soundbite of rattling)

GROSS: ...be still.

Mr. DEMME: He just scratched his head.

GROSS: My guests are Neil Young and director Jonathan Demme. Their new
performance film is called "Neil Young: Heart of Gold." More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guests are Neil Young and director Jonathan Demme. Their new
performance film, "Neil Young: Heart of Gold," features songs that Young
wrote last year right after he was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm that has
since been successfully treated.

GROSS: Excuse us, we're having some technical problems. Our interview was
recorded yesterday or earlier this week, and so we're just having a little bit
of problem with our tapes, so we will be back with that interview momentarily
with Neil Young and Jonathan Demme. Their new concert film "Heart of Gold"
opens this Friday in select theaters and in more theaters next Friday.

But I want to play another, like really beautiful song from "Prairie Wind,"
you know, one of the songs you do in the performance from "Heart of Gold." And
this is a song that was written for your daughter, it's called "I'm Here for
You." Would you talk about writing this song?

Mr. YOUNG: Well, this is--this is like, probably the second to last song
that I did before going back to New York, and it's a song about--you know,
it's about my daughter. She's--you know, she's 21 and she's moving on, you
know, she's in college, she's graduating, and I'm really proud of her and how
well she is doing. She's an artist, and you know, of course, I miss her all
the time but I really don't want to intrude so I was just trying to
communicate to her that she has a place to go, but it wasn't a place she had
to go, you know. She--if she needed me, I was there, that myself and her
mother would be there for her if she ever needed us and that she was free to
go and free to stay, and that we were behind her all the way, you know. So it
is just that kind of a song, a kind of letting go without letting go kind of.

GROSS: Well, it's a great song. Here it is. It's "I'm Here for You."

(Soundbite of "I'm Here for You")

Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) "When your summer days come tumbling down and you find
yourself alone, then you can come back and be with me. Just close your eyes
and I'll be there. Listen to the song. This old heart beating for you. Yes,
I miss you, but I never want to hold you down. You might say I'm here for
you."

GROSS: That's "I'm Here for You," a song from Neil Young's latest CD "Prairie
Wind," and he also sings the songs from the CD on his new performance film
which is called "Neil Young: Heart of Gold," and the film is directed by
Jonathan Demme, who is also with us.

You know, the two songs that we just played, this one and the one called
"Falling Off the Face of the Earth," I hear them, and I might be being, like,
overly dramatic here, but they sound to me like the songs that you might have
written as messages to leave behind for the people you love just in case
something happened to you. Am I reading too much into it?

Mr. YOUNG: Well, these songs are meant to be for anything. They're meant to
be for if I'm here or if I'm not here. But all my songs are like that. So, I
really try to write songs like that. I wrote a song years and years ago
called "I Feel Like Going Back," and it could have been one of these songs,
and, you now, it's all about not one particular time or place or situation but
the whole thing. I try to make it so that it will work, you know, that's
where I'm coming from, so it will work no matter what happens.

Mr. DEMME: This movie ends with "One of These Days" which Neil wrote years
ago and reinterpreted for the movie, but that's as rich and, you know, as
emotionally powerful a summing up song as any other song on the "Prairie Wind"
album, I think.

GROSS: Are there things that you think were easier to say in a song than in
conversation?

Mr. YOUNG: Oh, yeah. Yeah, on practically everything. Actually, yeah, but,
you know, I really, I'm glad that I can write songs because I would've
probably gone crazy by now if I couldn't have put some of these ideas down in
a way that is obscure enough so you can say them at any time, and yet, when
you hear it, if you are thinking about it and you are wide open to it, then
you can go a lot farther than the current conversation.

GROSS: How did you both decide which songs to include in the performance
from, obviously, you have the songs from "Prairie Wind," but there are also
earlier songs, early Neil Young songs on there and you obviously had a lot of
songs to choose from. So, how did you decide which ones you wanted to
include?

Mr. DEMME: Well, "Prairie Wind" was all I cared about when we started making
the movie. It was it. Just that suite of songs was, as far as I'm concerned,
just a perfect amazing body of work unto itself. And we were pretty far down
the line, you know, we knew we were going to go to the Ryman. We knew that
Manuel was going to do the costumes. We knew that Michael Zansky was going to
do the backdrops. We knew that Andy Keir was going to cut it and Alan was
going to shoot.

And then I was in my kitchen one day, and I suddenly went, `Wait a minute,
we're going to have a 55-minute movie.' So I called Neil up and said, really
pretty crude, I just said, `You know, if we only have 55 minutes and we're
hoping that we can get this film into movie theaters, would it be possible to
add an encore dimension to kind of rough out the running time, to flesh out
the running time?' And Neil right away said--I felt funny asking him that, but
I did. And then he said right away, `Sure, let me think about it. Obviously,
I'll have to draw from my Nashville body of work pretty much.' And he also
said he wanted to think about it and select songs that would be thematically
compatible with the songs of "Prairie Wind."

So, you know, off he went. And then we saw each other a little while later,
and Neil had created a list of songs. And he showed them to me, and it was
basically the songs that are in the movie and a couple of others. And it is
such a treasure trove.

But the funny thing for me is that I was so focused on "Prairie Wind" and my
love for those songs that--and I thought that's terrific that our film will
end with some wonderful of the earlier songs. But I had no idea that those
earlier songs were going to wind up packing such a tremendously strong
emotional wallop.

GROSS: Well, the effect that you have with some of the olds songs, you know,
the effect I think that it registers on me, anyway, and the audience is that
here you have some of the songs, Neil Young, that you wrote and recorded when
you were a young man, and some of these are about age. And now you're singing
them as, you know, someone who isn't a young man. I think you're, what, 60
now?

Mr. YOUNG: Yeah.

GROSS: And so the songs...

Mr. DEMME: What's so old about that?

GROSS: And so the songs, they have a different resonance. They have a
different meaning. And, you know, and the audience like you feel you almost
reflecting on the songs and how the sound of the songs have changed. Do
you...

Mr. YOUNG: Well, there's a trick in there.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. YOUNG: To interrupt. Sorry to interrupt you. But what really happens
with these songs is--I think is that the whole beginning of the film we're
singing songs that have never been heard by the audience that we're singing
them for. And they are all brand-new, so they are firsttime presentations of
the songs, which makes you listen and you open up and start listening to
something because you don't know what it is. And you're seeing it in a way
that you've never seen anything from me before. So you're seeing them in a
new way and you're listening to new songs that are being done for the first
time. So it really opens you up. So what happens when we get to the second
half is that the audience is totally open to new material and listening to the
words and trying to pick up on everything that these songs are saying because
you only had one shot to pick up on it.

And when we go into the second part of it, it's basically a chronological trip
through my music, with a few departures from chronology. But it is starting
back in Buffalo Springfield and going through to, I guess, "Harvest Moon"
or--yeah, "Harvest Moon." So it goes through that. But the thing is, you
listen to it a lot more than you have been. Instead of celebrating, `Hey,
there's another old song and he's doing these songs that I like,' you're not
doing that. You're still listening because you've been tuned into listening
in the beginning and listening for the words. So they become part of the
story because you're trained and you have trained yourself to listen instead
of just watching and celebrating these old tunes that you've heard before.
You're listening to them like they're new tunes. And so I think that opens
the door for people to go on the journey with the songs.

GROSS: My guests are Neil Young and director Jonathan Demme. Their new
performance film is called "Neil Young: Heart of Gold." More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guests are Neil Young and director Jonathan Demme. Their new
performance film, "Neil Young: Heart of Gold," features several classics, as
well as new songs that Young wrote last year right after he was diagnosed with
a brain aneurysm that has since been successfully treated.

The songs in the movie, the takes are all so good that you almost feel like,
`God, it must have been post-dubbed or something because no concert goes this
smoothly.' You know that with like note-to-note perfection.

Jonathan Demme, how many takes were there for each of the songs? How did you
manage to get such good takes?

Mr. DEMME: Well, we didn't do takes per se. The concert was performed two
nights in a row, August 19th and August 20th. And the curtain parted and the
music was there. In fact, the music started before the curtain parted. And
we didn't redo any of the songs. We filmed them on both nights, and then
later we were able to either select which night seemed to be the better of the
two excellent performances. Because, frankly, each night was unbelievably
great. And everyone once in awhile, we did a sort of combination of the two
nights.

And in one instance, in "Old King," which is a song I love. I got so carried
away that, with Neil's permission, we actually made that longer and stretched
out the instrumental part of that so we could really just let the audience
just--something about everybody up there doing that kind of what I call a
hoedown. And Emmy Lou Harris strumming amazing guitar, and Neil rocking out
on the banjo and what have you.

And so that was it. We didn't do any retakes. You have to realize that the
amount of preparation for Neil and his fellow band members that preceded the
show, they rehearsed for 10 solid days straight ahead. Like Neil said
earlier, everybody knew that they were introducing the "Prairie Wind" songs
for the very first time. No one out there ever would have heard these. The
CD hasn't come out yet. It was going to be a brand-new experience. And I had
the unique thrill of presenting it for the first time on the stage at the
Ryman Auditorium in Nashville to a audience that had been largely invited and
was made up of songwriters and musicians and people who just adore the kind of
music they were about to hear.

So everybody was just at their peak form. And, you know, we just got the
cameras in focus, and they let it rip. And it was quite an exquisite night of
music.

GROSS: Neil Young, one of the things that adds to the emotional depth of the
movie is that onstage, before introducing one of the songs that has to do with
your father, you talk about how he had recently died after having dementia for
10 years. And you talk about how interesting it was to watch him living in
the moment. And I thought that's the kind of positive thing to find about
somebody who has dementia is that they're living in the moment. Did you hold
on to that as a way of seeing something positive about his dementia and his
inability to remember the past?

Mr. YOUNG: Well, I just focused on what his life was about now and not what
it was about, you know, used to be about. Just more because the love is still
there and everything, but I couldn't think of any other way to describe it.

GROSS: Mm-mmm.

Mr. YOUNG: Because that's really all that I think was left. I just--I don't
know. Perhaps it was easier for him to remember things than it was for him to
speak about what he remembered. So I don't know the connection. I don't know
whether people with dementia actually can't remember anything or whether they
can't put the words together to explain what it is. Because just putting a
sentence together takes an incredible amount of reasoning power in the
present. And it really, we take it for granted, and we speak along and it's
quite a creation, the human body, that enables us to think and talk and do all
of these things at the same time. So as it slowly breaks down and the
connections get lost, it's kind of hard to say exactly where things are and
what's happening. But I know that my dad was living in the moment so I use
that phrase to describe what was going on. That's the best I could do.

GROSS: Do you feel right now that you're--there is something very cathartic
about the performance film? Do you feel like you've come through the other
end of something by having kind of lived through the whole aneurysm thing,
written the songs you wanted to write, recorded the CD, done the performance
film. They are both really emotional kind of experiences. Do you feel like
you're out the other end of something?

Mr. YOUNG: I feel like I'm at the beginning of something else now.

GROSS: Of what, do you know?

Mr. YOUNG: No. But I know I'm at the beginning of something. And nothing
ever really ends with music. It just keeps on going on. It's like it's an
eternal exhaust out of some, you know, interplanetary spaceship. It just
keeps going, you know. It's just out there. Anything you put out just keeps
on happening. People could listen to this music in a hundred, 200, 300 years
from now as far as I know. So what we do now lasts forever. And what we're
going to do next is what matters.

GROSS: Jonathan Demme, one last question for you. When you were making this
movie, did you dream these songs every night? Were you hearing them so much
and thinking about them so much that they just like stuck with you even when
you should have not been thinking about them, like when you should have been
sleeping?

Mr. DEMME: I'll tell you, all my three children worked on the movie with me,
each in different capacities. And my wife Joanne was there. And all I can
tell you is that everybody is obsessed with these songs, and we'd no sooner
come home from, you know, 12-14 hour rehearsal sessions, and we'd come home
and somebody or other would put the CD on. So we lived "Prairie Wind"
throughout the shooting and driving in the cars on the weekends playing it.
And, finally, we all were able to sing all the lyrics to all the songs. So it
got very obsessive. Yes.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both so much for talking with us. Thank
you.

Mr. DEMME: It was fun, Terry. Thank you.

Mr. YOUNG: Thank you.

(Soundbite of rattling)

Mr. DEMME: That was Neil getting up.

GROSS: Neil Young's new performance film, "Heart of Gold," was directed by
Jonathan Demme. It opens Friday in select cities and in more cities next
week.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with another song from "Prairie Wind"
that's also featured in Neil Young's new film.

(Soundbite of Neil Young singing)

Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) "Was he thinking about my country or the color of my
skin, was he thinking about my religion and the way I worshiped him? Did he
create just me in his image or every living thing?

Mr. YOUNG and Backup Singers: (Singing) "When God made me, when God made
me."

Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) "Was he..."
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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