"Long before I met Neil, he was a huge part of my feelings," says Jonathan Demme, who is referring to Neil Young. The Oscar-winning director hadn't even broken into the film industry when he first heard the legendary rocker in the 1960s. At the time, the Canadian-born Young was a member of Buffalo Springfield.
"I remember listening to 'Broken Arrow' and going, 'Wow, I never heard anything like this before,"' says Demme, whose film "Neil Young Journeys" opens Friday at Landmark's Nuart in West Los Angeles. It is the third Demme- Young collaboration, following 2006's "Heart of Gold," shot at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, and "Neil Young Trunk Show," filmed during the Chrome Dreams II tour in 2007.
Demme says he was dismayed when Buffalo Springfield, which lasted a little more than two years, broke up in 1968. Living in London at the time, he recalls walking into a record store later that year and being thrilled at seeing Young's first solo album.
"The album was brilliant, and his music has been huge with me ever since," the director says. "There is a continuity in the way he sings about what it is to be a white male at a certain time in history, more or less my generation."
Some 25 years later, Demme asked Young to write a song for his 1993 film "Philadelphia," but the two didn't meet until the following year.
"Meeting him was unbelievable," says Demme, now 68, about a year and a half older than the rocker. "I was very excited. I couldn't believe I found myself in a room with Neil Young. I've come to relax more over the last couple years. It's been amazing to work with somebody who has had that much impact on my consciousness."
For "Journeys," Demme filmed the final two performances of Young's 2011 solo tour at Toronto's Massey Hall, concerts in support of the 2010 album "Le Noise." Longtime Young fans will know the famed concert venue from "Live at Massey Hall 1971." A bootleg of his solo show, it was finally released as an album in 2007.
Those fans also will know the first line of his song "Helpless": "There is a town in north Ontario."
Until he arrived in Toronto about a week before shooting "Journeys," Demme says he embarrassingly didn't realize that the metropolis was in Ontario. Young, of course, wasn't referring to Toronto in the song but to his small hometown of Omemee, a three-hour car ride northeast of the city.
With the opening line of "Helpless" resonating and knowing the concert was a very intense experience, Demme began looking around for a way to open up the film. So he hit upon the idea of having Young drive around his hometown in a 1956 Ford Crown Victoria and talk about his memories. (The rocker has a love of old cars, although he is a staunch advocate for fuel-efficient vehicles.)
"I figured it wouldn't be a waste of time," Demme says about the excursion, "because Neil could have used it for his archives.
"So we went up there, and I didn't ask him one thing. We just got the car and what came out, came out. It never occurred to me that what it would be would be these eyebrow-raising childhood anecdotes about eating tar and blowing up turtles."
Returning to Massey Hall 40 years after his last concert there was a bit more than the "arbitrariness of an anniversary," says Demme. When Young first played the concert hall, it was like "local boy makes good." In "Journeys" he is "like the grizzled maestro." That they were both solo shows gave the film a "whole amazing other kind of resonance -- a bookend."
In the film, Young plays eight songs from "Le Noise" along with eight older numbers including "After the Gold Rush," "I Believe in You" and "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)." "Le Noise" is a solo album with Young accompanying himself on guitars that create a sort of "wall of sound," which was manipulated by producer Daniel Lanois.
Demme says the heart attack death in 2010 of Ben Keith, a veteran steel guitarist who played on Patsy Cline's 1961 hit "I Fall to Pieces," played into Young's decision to go on the road solo. Keith had been a key member of the rocker's band and Demme feels that Young, who himself had been successfully treated for an aneurysm in 2005, didn't want to perform without him.
Besides, reasons Demme, "What do you do differently if you are Neil Young and going on the road for the millionth time?"
And what do you do differently for a concert film? Demme has made a number of good ones, including "Stop Making Sense" with the Talking Heads in 1984, considered by many to be one of the greatest rock films of all time.
For "Journeys," Demme says his cinematographer, Declan Quinn, was obsessed with the idea of a performance zone -- the space between the microphone and the performer. So they attached a small camera to the mike stand.
"We had it set up in such a way that it was supposed to be a full-face shot of Neil," Demme says. "But the bolt that was holding the camera loosened a little during the performance and it became a shot of Neil's mouth, which of course is the portal through which the voice and words come through."
Quinn was horrified when they saw it, but Demme thought it was the "best favor we've ever been done.
"No one would ever dream up a shot like that."
They used the angle for two songs in the film. One was "Down by the River," in which a man kills a woman.
"You don't want a normal shot for that. This isn't just another song. This is a confession of murder," says Demme, who put one of the creepiest killers on screen ever -- Hannibal Lecter in his Oscar-winning "The Silence of the Lambs." "I feel that Neil's performance in that song is amazing. It's kind of pretty on the record and controlled. But here, oh man, here's the real story."
Since making the acclaimed "Rachel Getting Married" in 2008, Demme has been mainly working on documentaries.
"I still have eyes for fiction, but it's really hard to get these films off the ground," he says. "Meanwhile, I love shooting stuff I care about."
He is collaborating with Stephen King on an adaptation of the author's sci-fi novel "11/22/63" that centers around an attempt to go back in time and stop the Kennedy assassination, and he's shot a version of Henrik Ibsen's "The Master Builder," adapted and translated by Wallace Shawn. He describes it as an indie film where "everything basically takes place inside a house."
Demme also has another doc coming out about a musician, "Enzo Avitabile Music Life," about an Italian saxophonist and singer-songwriter.
While the filmmaker calls Avitabile a fantastic musician, there is no musician who has impacted his life like Young, and Demme felt it was important to bring the legend's vision to the screen.
One of the songs in "Journeys" is "Ohio," the song Young wrote in the immediate aftermath of the shooting by the National Guard of four students protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State University in 1971.
"We've all heard the song -- maybe even at the shopping mall," notes Demme. "But who are the four dead? What happened?"
So to accompany the song, the director got some archival footage from that day and contacted the victims' families to get their OK to show their pictures in the film.
"Now you can see who the young people were," says Demme, who notes that students were pepper-sprayed by campus police last year at UC Davis during an Occupy movement protest. "So I think that there is a strong cautionary dimension to Neil bringing out the song now."