DVD Review: Neil Young - Here we are in the Years: Neil Young’s Music Box

Here we are in the Years: Neil Young’s Music Box
Sexy Intellectual
All Access Review: B-

Drawing parallels between Buffalo Springfield’s raucous “Mr. Soul,” penned by Neil Young, and the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” doesn’t require a great leap of imagination, nor does one have to strain to hear the sad echoes of Roy Orbison in the tender melancholy of Young’s heartbreaking “Birds.” Anybody who fancies himself an amateur musicologist could make similar connections. To construct a sort of family tree of the complex musical influences that, when combined, drove Young to become the multi-faceted, challenging and utterly compelling artist he’s been for decades takes a more skillful hand, especially when doing it as a documentary film.

In the case of “Here we are in the Years: Neil Young’s Music Box,” the filmmakers, to their detriment, often allow the hardcore musicology to get in the way of a good story. A detailed, studious survey of Young’s career and all its fascinating twists and turns, “Here we are in the Years” offers up an in-depth examination of the impact of genres as diverse early rock ‘n’ roll, surf instrumentals, the Beatles and the Stones, country and folk, punk and new wave, electronic and grunge on Young’s work. Much of it involves weaving together the thoughts of critics, Young biographers, authors, musicologists and fellow musicians with live footage and snippets of old interviews with Young taken from other sources. As with many similar DVDs from Sexy Intellectual, Young is not involved personally in the project, and the film does not have the blessing of Young’s management or record label.

His lack of participation isn’t a distraction, however. There are plenty of Young to go around – in performance clips (the MTV Awards with Pearl Jam, concert pieces from his tour for Trans, the “Heart of Gold” concert film and a televised Buffalo Springfield jam on “Mr. Soul” to name a few) and a very small part of an interview Young did in 2007 with the BBC. What “Here we are in the Years” leans on is a clutch of talking-head interviews with the likes of writers Greg Prato, Anthony DeCurtis and Richie Unterberger. It traces Young’s career from the very beginning, starting with the rock ‘n’ roll pioneers like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard he idolized on through to his preoccupation with, of all people, Kraftwerk.

That open-mindedness and willingness to pay attention to, and incorporate, elements of what was happening in contemporary music – punk rock was something Young found a kinship with, even as colleagues like Stephen Stills, David Crosby and Graham Nash turned their backs on it – probably helped Young stay young, or at least artistically relevant. And even though efforts like the electronic immersion of Trans and the rockabilly-fueled Everybody’s Rockin’ were both part of Young’s early ‘80s malaise, they were signals of Young’s intentions to try his hand at just about everything, and give this film credit for delving into the stories behind these failures with as much relish as does the triumphs, like Harvest, After The Gold Rush, On The Beach and Sleeps With Angels.

There’s a lot of territory to cover, and “Here we are in the Years” does its level best to traverse it all. The thought-provoking analysis, delivered honestly and without a hint of cynicism, hits the mark consistently, and the history provided here is as deep and well-researched as can be, given the constraints of film running time. Much insight is given into Young’s dalliance with electronic music and his grandfatherly relationship with grunge icons, such as Pearl Jam, is explored with great intellectual curiosity, as is his abiding love of the folk duo Ian & Sylvia and the theory that Bert Jansch and his brand of depressed, gloomy British folk weighed heavy on Young’s more folk-oriented material.

But, there’s a limit to the amount of serious, almost academic discussion of Young’s influences a viewer can take. This is master’s class in Young and his art, his lyrics, his guitar playing, his politics and his songwriting. From the undeniably British narration – quiet, unassuming and intellectual – to the all-business attitudes of the commentators gathered here, “Here we are in the Years” is a death march to the end. With one eye watching the clock to see how much running time is left and a finger on the fast-forward button, it’s not always easy to stay awake for the whole thing. The more dedicated Young scholars will go for extra credit and review the extended interviews and digital biographies included among the extras. The C students among us who want to go play our Harvest records or try to copy the wild, noise-drenched solos Young plays with Crazy Horse will ditch school and try to avoid the truant officer.

-          Peter Lindblad

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