Uncut Editor's Diary
Neil Young And Don't Be Denied - Uncut Previews New BBC 4 Documentary
Trying to cover the entirety of Neil Young’s tempestuous 40 year career in a documentary film lasting not much more than 60 minutes is a bit like trying to pour the Atlantic into a bucket, an impossible task, however noble the intentions.
Don’t Be Denied – “a documentary film about the life and times of Neil Young” – makes a sometimes brilliant stab at telling Neil’s story in the aforementioned hour and is full of fascinating moments and boasts some great archive footage of Buffalo Springfield, Crazy Horse and solo performances. There’s also terrific interview content with the legendary contrarian, filmed over nine months in New York and California, Neil living up entirely to his reputation as someone you would be ill-advised to mess with, on any level you might care to consider.
“I only care about the music,” he says early on with uncompromising conviction. “It’s sad. I’m brutal,” he adds later with a worryingly steely resolve. “I only do it for the music. People are secondary.”
“Neil’s like a force of nature. It’s like having the wind in your band. He was the nitro-glycerine in the mix,” observes David Crosby, who with Graham Nash and Stephen Stills is here to bear witness to the havoc Young’s monumental bloody-mindedness has frequently wrought.
“My first job is to follow my musical course and it’s always detrimental to people around me,” Young subsequently says, reinforcing the point. “There’s always a lot of collateral damage.”
Directed by Ben Whalley for BBC 4, the film, which was previewed last night in a swanky West End Hotel, moves at break-neck speed through Young’s life and music, which it tackles chronologically. Longstanding Neil fans will therefore find a lot of inevitably familiar ground covered here.
We have, for instance, the Winnipeg adolescence, fondly recalled by former members of his first notable band, The Squires, the hearse trip from Toronto to LA, where he runs again into Stephen Stills, his fractious history with The Buffalo Springfield (“that wasn’t my band, but I was in it”), his takeover and transformation of The Rockets into Crazy Horse, the superstardom that followed After the Goldrush, Harvest, and his enlistment by Crosby, Stills and Nash.
Young is characteristically terse about why he contested his own popularity after Harvest made him briefly the most popular solo star in the world, his audience at the time clamouring for more of the same.
“I’m determined to avoid repetition,” he says. “I didn’t want to do another album like Harvest. How many sensitive songs can you write before it’s not a sensitive song? After Harvest, I could have made an album just like it. I could have made an album that everybody wanted. Instead, I made an album that nobody wanted.”
He’s talking now about Time Fades Away, the first instalment of what later became known as ‘The Doom Trilogy’ – which subsequently included On The Beach and Tonight’s The Night, whose raw derangements cost him a goodly portion of the audience that had only recently swooned over the winsome Harvest.
He’s gruffly funny about the infamous “Revolution Blues” (“they say that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars/I hate them worst than lepers and I’ll kill them in their cars”), a song from On The Beach inspired by Charlie Manson.
“I played it to Crosby,” he recalls, “and he said, ‘Don’t sing about that. It’s not funny.’ It spooked people. But then, they were spooky times. I knew Charles Manson and he spooked the hell out of me.”
It says a lot about how much history the film has to pack in that by now we’re 45 minutes into Don’t Be Denied, which in its hectic final 15 minutes hurtles through the next 25 years, from Rust Never Sleeps to Living With War and the last CSNY tour, which took that album’s songs to an often hostile audience, pausing briefly to consider Young’s brief flirtation with synthesisers on Trans, at which time, we might be astonished to learn, his favourite groups were the Human league and, er, A Flock Of Seagulls.
“You’re going to go up and down,” he says, looking back finally at who and what he has been “Sometimes you get lost in a trough and no one can see you and no one cares. They’re just looking at the whitecaps,” he observes vividly, seeing his career as a series of cresting and receding waves. “Then you come up again. You just have to hang in there and keep going.”
This is all compelling stuff, but the problem is there simply isn’t enough of it. Another half hour would have helped, but what Neil’s life and times clearly beg for is the kind of treatment Scorsese afforded Dylan in No Direction Home.
Still, you won’t want to miss it and I’ll be watching again when the film is broadcast on BBC 4 on October 31 at 10.00pm.