Neil Young: Live at Massey Hall 1971 (2007)

neilyoung.jpgDirector: Bernard Shakey (Neil Young)

By Don Jacobson

Neil Young has, over the many years in which he’s made such a huge impact on rock music, harbored a second career as a filmmaker. His role as movie director was on display fairly recently in 2004’s Greendale, an interesting and informative work in which Young illustrated in film an album’s worth of original song-cycle about a northern California hippie clan’s family history.

When he takes up the camera, Young is self-deprecating: He uses the nom du cinema of Bernard Shakey. That’s actually a pretty accurate description of his film style. Lo-fi, DIY, he cultivated the modern ethos of feigned handheld incompetence to produce a homespun quality that has an admirable ability to cut through the emotional clutter and go straight to the heart of his meaning – much like his music.

Mr. Shakey’s first efforts, it turns out, came way back in early 1971, in the midst of a time that was the most exciting and productive of Young’s career as a rock musician. It was then that he decided to minutely film a solo acoustic tour he undertook as he prepared what he thought at the time was going to be a live album and accompanying film, but which eventually morphed into his classic studio album Harvest. The film of the acoustic shows mouldered on the shelf until he began a project in 1997 to publish an archive of all manner of unreleased materials, with the best so far being the DVD Neil Young: Live at Massey Hall 1971.

Released in March with an accompanying audio CD, the concert film is best described as grainy and intimate. Filmed by Wim Van der Linden under the direction of the 25-year-old Young, the film features at a lot of tight close-ups of Young with just an acoustic guitar and harmonica, and occasionally follows him as he moves stiffly to the piano. He had suffered a debilitating back injury in 1970, and as he lay in a hospital bed at that time, he wrote many of the unforgettable songs that appeared on Harvest, such as “Old Man,” “Needle and the Damage Done” and “Heart of Gold.” During the acoustic tour filmed here, he introduces these now-classic songs as something new.

To see him perform them in front of an audience that does not recognize them is to move powerfully back to a time when the Kent State massacre was still a burning topic and the fight against Richard Nixon’s Vietnam war policies were just as urgent as today’s conflict over Iraq. The enthusiastic response of small, in-the-round audience to Young’s then-current antiwar song “Ohio” is eerily reminiscent of the kind of reaction that performers get today when they bash George Bush. At the same time, it’s depressing: It makes you realize that the lessons of one generation are largely lost on the next and that each has to learn the terrible lessons of the abuse of power for itself.

The documentary’s visual style is unremarkable. It’s meant to be a filmed record, and as such it succeeds. Its main accomplishment is acoustic. The sound is pristine and so detailed that Young’s every vocal nuance – at a time when his voice was at its clearest and most emotive – is thrillingly captured in the smallest detail. The set list includes such songs as “Cowgirl in the Sand,” “Helpless,” “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” and “Down By the River.” Young performs them here without the harmonies of his pals David Crosby, Graham Nash, and Stephen Stills, and minus the loud rock accompaniment of his band Crazy Horse. The 1970-71 acoustic tour was a chance for him to perform in theaters that normally hosted plays or classical music, such as Toronto’s Massey Hall, Chicago’s Auditorium Theater, and Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater.

The thing about Neil Young: Live at Massey Hall 1971 that makes it such a precious document is that it captures one of the 20th century’s most important cultural figures at the precise moment when he was just graduating into that role. You can tell from his demeanor that he was beginning to grasp that he was turning into a legend and icon, but also hadn’t yet tired of the music that would become his legacy. l

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