"Neil Young Journeys" premiered Monday night at the Toronto International Film Festival. Afterward, Young joked with the audience that a tiny camera mounted on his microphone for the concerts "scared the hell out of me."
The camera was so close that it caught a glob of the singer's spittle, creating a blotch on the lens that gives the footage a bit of a psychedelic tinge.
Director Jonathan Demme told the audience he decided to include that sequence in the film, quipping that it was like a "hundred-thousand-dollar special effect."
The evening was a homecoming for Young, who grew up in Ontario north of Toronto. It also allowed Young and Demme, the Academy Award-winning director of "The Silence of the Lambs," to reflect on their nearly 20-year association, which includes the previous concert films "Neil Young: Heart of Gold" and "Neil Young Trunk Show."
The two first came together as Demme was finishing his 1993 drama "Philadelphia," starring Tom Hanks as a gay lawyer dying of AIDS. Demme said he cut the film's title sequence to Young's angry rock anthem "Southern Man," then sent it to Young hoping he would write a similarly blazing tune to insert in its place.
The filmmaker said he wanted a seal of approval to pitch the film to "homophobic young white men" and that an anthem from Young would reassure them because "Neil thinks this is OK."
Young sent back the slow, melancholy heart-wrencher "Philadelphia."
"It was so not a rock anthem," Demme said. "It fit the end of the movie so well."
That's where he inserted the song, and Demme then turned to Bruce Springsteen for an opening anthem. Springsteen sent back another slow weeper, "Streets of Philadelphia."
Demme conceded that maybe the musicians had nailed the soul of the film better than he had and put Springsteen's song at the opening. Springsteen won a songwriting Oscar for his, while Young's earned a nomination.
"Neil Young Journeys" captures the singer at Toronto's historic Massey Hall last May for the closing two shows of his "Le Noise" tour. Young's music thunders through the hall as he plays solo on acoustic and electric guitar, harmonica, piano and organ.
The songs are intercut with a long drive Young took at the wheel of a 1956 Ford Crown Victoria from his hometown of Omemee, Ontario, to Massey Hall for one of the shows.
Along the way, Young comments on the people he knew and the places he lived growing up, recalling a boyhood friend who convinced him to eat road tar because it tasted like chocolate and pointing out a spot where he killed a turtle with a firecracker.
"So my environmental roots are not that deep," Young jokes in the film.
Young marvels pensively how his childhood region has changed, buildings vanished and new developments grown up all around. "It's all gone," Young says. "It's in my head. That's why you don't have to worry when you lose friends. 'Cause they're still in your head. Still in your heart."
Young remembers departed friends in the film's performances, which lean heavily toward material from recent albums. But the film also features solo renditions of Young classics such as "Down by the River," "After the Gold Rush" and "Ohio," a protest tune about the National Guard shootings at Kent State in 1970 which is accompanied by archival footage of the tragedy and photos of the four students slain there.
After the film, Young recalled his early days as a failed musician in Toronto and summed up his long collaboration with filmmaker Demme.
"He loves music," Young said. "And I love movies."