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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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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

via GIPHY

Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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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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