Good concert films re-create the you-are-there rush of attending a show; great ones, however, turn the performances into something beyond the sum of sound plus vision. Given the raw material of Neil Young's Nashville gigs in Jonathan Demme's movie—namely, Young's uncharacteristically sentimental Prairie Wind, a 2005 collection of open letters to family, friends and, gulp, God—even a good approximation of seeing a second-rate album played in toto doesn't seem like a thrilling proposition.
But Young and Demme's collaboration not only puts these songs in the proper context of personal tragedy (the songwriter had just lost his father and suffered a near-fatal illness) but also gives the musician's new tunes an emotional eloquence; what seems sappy and hackneyed on record suddenly transforms into a meditation on memories and mortality. By the time Young, framed against a black background, reinterprets such classics as the film's title track and "Old Man," the interplay between past and present feels positively epiphanic.
And no director has ever employed such grace and understated grandeur in shooting musicians at work. Demme's concentrated close-ups of guitar players trading glances and backup singers harmonizing say more about these artists than any theatrical flourishes or talking-head testimonials. Like the best of Young's back-catalog cuts, Heart of Gold achieves a momentous depth even as it relies on simple ingredients: a man, a band, a song, a message. That's all, and yet it's more than enough. (Opens Fri; Regal Union Square 14. See also "After the old rush," page 91.)—David Fear