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DID YOU READ

Tim Grierson on Jonathan Demme’s terrific Neil Young documentaries

Neil Young in Heart of Gold

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In 2005, we almost lost Neil Young. Diagnosed with a brain aneurysm, the then-59-year-old songwriter went in for surgery, which was successful, but a few days later he collapsed in the street due to complications from the procedure. (He had to be revived by emergency personnel.) In interviews, Young tended to downplay the severity of what happened, but for anyone who’s loved his music, it was an alarming reminder that one of rock’s most prolific artists someday was going to stop producing new music.

Whether as a solo artist or with one of his side bands, Young has put out a new studio album or a live disc just about every year since 1966. But while many of them have been terrific, Young’s legacy isn’t defined just by the quality of his work but by the endless restlessness of his muse. Young’s health scare has prompted a lot of fans to appreciate him while he’s still around. Even better, it’s inspired director Jonathan Demme to produce three terrific Neil Young concert documentaries in the last six years that sum up his artistic importance as neatly as any biography could. The third installment opens on Friday. Even if you’ve seen the other two — especially if you’ve seen the other two — this one is a must.

It’s called “Neil Young Journeys,” and it’s superficially similar in format to the first two editions. 2006’s largely acoustic “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” and 2010’s mostly electric “Neil Young Trunk Show” focused on Young the performer, and while “Neil Young Journeys” does as well, there’s a healthy serving of Young off the stage, as he drives around his small Canadian hometown reminiscing about his youth. It’s not as if Young delivers devastating insights into his creative process during these drives, but they’re nonetheless incredibly valuable because they help paint a portrait of this somewhat loopy, entirely enjoyable oddball who seems to do everything with the same scruffy nonchalance. Like his music, the interviews are deceptively candid yet contain mysteries into the deeper meanings behind his plainspoken language.

But as with the earlier films, “Journeys” is chiefly about the music, and it’s a constant wonder. Each documentary has been built around a tour for a particular album — “Prairie Wind” in “Heart of Gold,” “Chrome Dreams II” in “Trunk Show,” “Le Noise” in “Journeys” — and while none of these records would be considered masterpieces, Young’s insistence on focusing on new music during these shows speaks volumes about his commitment not to live in the past. But at the same time, there is an undeniable sense of looking back in all three albums. (“Prairie Wind” was a response to his discovery of the brain aneurysm, and some of the material on “Chrome Dreams II” — which itself is a sequel to a 1970s album that he never ended up releasing — was written in the ‘80s.) By following Young on his trip home, “Journeys” feels the most complete in terms of suggesting his humble origins and the long road he’s taken to get to where he is now.

Demme’s secret weapon with this project has always been his willingness to emulate Young’s instinctive, organic approach. As well-intentioned and valuable as music documentaries like “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan” or “Marley” are, they tend to treat their subjects as deities, playing up their cultural importance while draining them of their vitality. Demme’s films have gone the complete opposite direction, living in the moment as Young shows us a different musical persona in each documentary. To match the gentle, elegiac quality of “Prairie Wind,” “Heart of Gold” is a polished, serene presentation of Young’s sentimental songs. For the bruising garage-rock of “Chrome Dreams II,” Demme turned to lower-grade video cameras for “Trunk Show,” which complemented the music’s rough-and-tumble immediacy. Now with “Journeys,” he’s made what could almost be described as a home movie — cozy but direct — that marvels at Young’s onstage presence, which remains as volcanic as ever. (It should be noted that Demme isn’t some novice when it comes to the concert film. His “Stop Making Sense,” a chronicle of the Talking Heads performing in 1983, is widely regarded as one of the greatest music documentaries of all time.) Demme and Young have known each other for a while — the musician contributed a song to the director’s “Philadelphia” — and there’s an unmistakable intimacy between the two that lends a casual richness to these movies. This is not easy to achieve: Young doesn’t do a lot of interviews and isn’t particularly warm and fuzzy when he does agree to one. But Young is relaxed and confident as he performs, barely noticing that the cameras are there. It’s like observing a wild creature in its natural habitat.

There’s an argument to be made that the world doesn’t need three Young concert documentaries. (After all, director Jim Jarmusch made his own Young documentary back in 1997, and Young himself has directed concert films as well.) But as Demme’s project has rolled along, I’ve been struck by the wisdom of the filmmaker’s decision to keep revisiting the musician. “I’m as predictable as a Holiday Inn when you really look at me,” Young told a reporter back in ’05. “I keep doing the same thing all over again. I just make records, and the records are usually some sort of turnabout from the last record.” In the same way, Demme’s films have honored Young’s tireless creativity, portraying his artistry as an ongoing process, an ever-evolving project that will only stop when Young is physically incapable of picking up an instrument. Demme isn’t trying to deify Young: He wants to depict him in all his messy, rumbling humanity. “Neil Young Journeys” is believed to be the final chapter for Demme. If that’s the case, he’s given all of Young’s fans a wonderful memento of a life lived for the joy of honing one’s craft. “All I know is, I don’t want to die,” Young said in that same ’05 interview. “I have a lot left to do. I don’t feel like people are giving up on me, and I won’t give up on them. So I’m just going to keep on doing whatever it is I do.” We’ve been lucky to have been along for the ride.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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