Catching up with Neil Young and Jonathan Demme -- The award-winning singer-songwriter and director talk about their new documentary

By Chris Nashawaty
February 17, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

You wouldn’t know it from watching the old man cracking up on the sofa next to you, but last year was a rough one for Neil Young. In the span of a few months, his father passed away and he learned he had a life-threatening brain aneurysm. Bad news like that would send most artists into a creative tailspin, but songs poured out of Young. It was the only way he knew how to grapple with his father’s — and his own — mortality. The result, Prairie Wind, released in September, was a reckoning of the deepest regrets and simplest joys of a man unsure if he’d make it to see his 60th birthday (which he did, in November).

Jonathan Demme’s new documentary Neil Young: Heart of Gold (in theaters now) captures Young performing those songs right after his recovery. Filmed at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, former home of the Grand Ole Opry, Heart of Gold debuted at this year’s Sundance. And while Young insists it wasn’t made to provide a morbid look at a dying man (”We didn’t do the film so people could see me while I was still alive,” he jokes), it is the clearest insight yet into a man who’s always been a bit squirrelly about his privacy.

When we sat down with Young and Demme shortly after the movie’s premiere, Young, still high from the audience’s overwhelming reaction, was funny, feisty, and decidedly unhaunted. In other words, it was neither the time nor the place to grill him about staring death in the face. Instead, we let the conversation detour in an unlikely direction as the musician named his five favorite films and the filmmaker named his five favorite albums.

Jonathan Demme Well, my first one’s pretty obvious: Prairie Wind [2005]. It moves me beyond description. Then I guess Big Youth’s A Luta Continua [1985] because it’s 10 brilliant songs by a master in an idiom — reggae — that I adore.

Neil Young One of my favorite movies of all time would be…not so much because it was great…it was because my family had broken up and I went with my dad. He was no longer living with my mom, so on one of the visits we went to see a Jerry Lewis movie. The one where he takes the potion and becomes really cool. The Nutty Professor [1963].

Demme There’s a compilation called The Mojo Machine Turns You On [1998]. It has a lot of artists, including Sparklehorse. Our family grooved to Mojo Machine one summer in Maine.

Young Okay, so my second one would be another old film. My film tastes run sorta old. I like this one because my whole family went to this one. We went to it together when I was very young. Mister Roberts [1955]. We all laughed our asses off together.

Demme I’d have to toss in Love’s Forever Changes [1967] because I’ve listened to it so much.

Young Is ”Orange Skies” on that one? Okay, let’s go back now to Burt Lancaster. The Crimson Pirate [1952]. See, my favorite movies are from when I was just a kid. It was before I knew anything. They’re the ones that really made an impact.

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