The scoop on Jonathan Demme’s “Neil Young Trunk Show”

While fictional biopics such as “Ray” and “Walk the Line” are worth your dollar if you want to see some great acting, I prefer to watch the actual musician(s) in their element. Being relatively young, I haven’t had the chance to catch some of my favorites live, so I get very excited when live DVDs and documentaries are announced. Still, those are often hit or miss. Thankfully, some filmmakers have, over the years, utilized techniques that really “capture” a performance in ways that even being attendance can’t produce. Take Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz,” for example, or more recently, Davis Guggenheim’s “It Might Get Loud.” Neil Young is an individual who puts everything he has into his live act. This requires actual “thinking” on his part, and over the years he’s began combining different forms of art into a traditional tour date. Jonathan Demme (director of “Silence of the Lambs” and “Rachel Getting Married) has long been fascinated by the rock verteran’s otherworldly presence on stage. So far, in his planned trilogy on Young, Demm’s released “Heart of Gold,” a concert film documenting a performance shortly after the release of Young’s album “Prairie Wind.” The second installment, “Neil Young Trunk Show,” looks just as captivating.

Trunk Show is subtitled “scenes from a concert,” specifically from a pair of shows Young performed at the 1927-built Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, as part of his intimate Chrome Dreams II theater tour in 2008. Onstage, he performed a full acoustic set, followed by a full electric one with bandmates Ben Keith, Rick Rosas, Ralph Molina, Anthony “Sweetpea” Crawford and wife Pegi Young. He also had painter Eric Johnson creating on-the-spot works for each song. The stage was cluttered with “pre-digital” items, including a fan, DNC camera, and telephone.

Demme knew the set list, but says nothing was planned for the film. “Neil trusts me,” he says. Shot on hand-held cameras (HDCam, HDV and Super-8mm), Demme’s team included director of photography Declan Quinn (Rachel Getting Married, Leaving Las Vegas) and camera operators he’s worked with before.

Unlike the as-is sequence of Heart of Gold, for Trunk Show Demme jumbled the set list: the rare (”Mexico,” “Kansas,” “The Sultan”), the classics (”Cinnamon Girl,” “Cowgirl in the Sand,” “After the Gold Rush,” “Like a Hurricane”) and more recent (”No Hidden Path,” “The Believer”), and interspersed a few offstage moments to “ventilate the visuals” from the “claustrophobic indoors on the stage.” Those included Young’s entry to the Tower from a garbage-filled alley and the removal of a hangnail in his dressing room “He is completely unvain,” says Demme.

“Neil Young Trunk Show” will run at the Woodstock Film Festival but a nationwide release date hasn’t been announced. He’s one of the few “older guys” I really want to see live. Hopefully this film comes out soon to tide me over.


BBC to air new Beatles doc


Keeping with Beatles news (as they obviously need the press), BBC Two and Four is about to have their “Beatles Week,” which will air multiple documentaries on the the legendary band. The most anticipated on the bunch is The Beatles on Record, which will include narration by the Fab Four and their producer George Martin, unreleased outtakes, and conversations from the band in the studio. The series will kick off on September 5th. Other pieces include The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit, which chronicled the band’s 1964 visit to the States, as well as How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin, an interesting look at the Beatle’s impact on communist Russia.

The Beatles On Record, directed by Bob Smeaton, charts The Beatles’ extraordinary journey from Please Please Me to Abbey Road and reflects on how they developed as musicians, matured as songwriters and created a body of work that sounds as fresh in 2009 as the time it was recorded.

Narrated entirely by John, Paul, George, Ringo and their producer Sir George Martin, the documentary features more than 60 classic songs, rare footage and photos from The Beatles’ archives and never-heard-before out-takes of studio chat from the Abbey Road recording sessions.

This is followed on the same evening on BBC Two by The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit.

BBC Two will also be reshowing Timewatch: Beatlemania, the inside story of the rise and fall of Beatlemania. By 1966 the Beatles had played more than 1,400 gigs, toured the world four times and sold the equivalent of 200 million records. At the height of their popularity, and without warning, they pulled the plug and never toured again.

There’s also another chance to see the action adventure spoof Help!, directed by Richard Lester.

Unfortunately, BBC hasn’t confirmed whether on not they will air the series on BBC America. I don’t see why they wouldn’t, as nobody watches that station anyway. Inform Americans that the channel will air a slew of never-before-seen Beatles footage and you’ll have millions tuning in.

The tribute week will coincide with EMI’s release of the band’s entire digitally remastered catalogue, as well as the previously reported The Beatles:Rock Band. Both will be released on September 9th. Hopefully BBC will wise up and air “Beatles Week” in the States, where there’s a larger market and just as rabid a fan base.


Rip! A Remix Manifesto

A movie about the art form of mash-ups that features mash-ups of the movie within the movie itself? We’re pretty sure we just heard the space/time continuum begin to rip at the prospect. Director Brett Gaylor attempts to make sense of the intellectual property laws that allow some musicians to steal riffs and make millions (Led Zeppelin, the Stones), while other, more cutting-edge musicians are branded as criminals (Girl Talk), and the end result is “Rip! A Remix Manifesto,” a wake-up call to Big Media that, whether they like or not, the rules have changed. Gaylor declares Walt Disney to be the first mash-up artist, and absolutely pummels publishing company Warner-Chappell for refusing to let “Happy Birthday” to enter the public domain (it’s true: if you sing that song, ever, you’re a thief), and for suing Radiohead fans for mash-ups once W-C acquired the rights to In Rainbows. Truth be told, the doc isn’t quite a five-star affair – we were frankly surprised that he didn’t mention when John Fogerty was sued for ripping off one of his own songs – but we’re giving it an extra star because “Rip!” addresses an issue that needs to be sorted out sooner rather than later. Indeed, one could argue that the music industry’s very survival depends on it. (Disinformation 2009)

Click to buy Rip! A Remix Manifesto


Soundies = the precursor of the music video

There’s a show airing on PBS stations around the country right about now that every music fan should check out, particularly if you enjoy history as well. It’s called “Soundies,” and its topic is stated outright in its title.

Soundies were, as the title of this post indicates, the precursor of the music video. The Mills Novelty Company created a refrigerator-sized machine called the Panoram, which was essentially a video jukebox, and these soundies – three-minute films of various musical artists performing their hit songs – could be watched on the Panoram in groups of three. (It was early technology, of course, so you couldn’t fast-forward or rewind; if you wanted to see the last soundie on the reel, you were stuck watching the first two as well, whether you wanted to or not.) The soundies began in 1940 and started off as a roaring success, but World War II caused the Panoram business to stumble – the war effort necessitated a slowing in the manufacturing of new machines – and by the time the armistice had been signed, it was too late; the era of the soundies was over by 1946.

But, wow, who knew how many video artifacts from those six years were still out there…?

Fans of jazz, country, pop vocalists of the ’40s, and even early R&B will find their jaws dropping at some of this footage. You’ll see performances from Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Les Paul, Kay Starr, Fats Waller, Spike Jones, the Mills Brothers, Merle Travis, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Doris Day, and even a young Liberace. The stock line about soundies is that while the most popular white artists tended to be under contract to other studios and were therefore unavailable to make soundies (there’s an interesting story about how Mel Torme’s group, the Meltones, did a soundie with another member lip-synching Mel’s vocals because Torme himself wasn’t contractually permitted to appear on camera), there were plenty of black artists who were more than willing to get in front of the camera in order maximize their exposure…and it’s so awesome that they did. Actually being able to see Fats Waller kick out the jams on the piano is pretty damned sweet.

There are also some interesting choices of talking heads brought onboard to discuss the soundies; in addition to new interviews with some of the folks who actually made them, like Les Paul and Kay Starr, we get commentary from Joe Franklin, Hugh Hefner, jazzmen George Duke and Wynton Marsalis, and…Stan Ridgway? Oh, it’s not so strange; didn’t you know that he recorded an album of standards a few years back? (If not, you will soon…when we discuss The Best Albums You’ve Never, Ever Heard. Check back at Bullz-Eye in early April!)

You can check out the official website for “Soundies,” but I’m led to understand that in addition to future airings, there’s talk of releasing it on DVD. Fingers crossed that that’s true; there’s a lot of stuff here that’s worth watching over and over again.