Miles Davis goes “Electric,” Neil Young goes Back to his Acoustic “Heart”
Woods Hole Film Festival Documents Musical Extremes. Movie reviews by Patricia Freeman.
Published Aug 29, 2006
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This year’s Woods Hole Film Festival offered two wonderful feature docs about seasoned musical legends at crossroads in their careers. The first film, “Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue,” chronicles the historic moment when Miles Davis went electric with his trumpet, whereby embracing the modern era. The second, “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” tells the story of Young’s comeback after brain surgery and of the intimate concert he performs with his friends that shows him embracing his acoustic roots. While each film offers two different extremes of musical and cinematic expression, they both celebrate musical genius and the power of music to change the course of history.
Taking a decidedly historical tone, “Miles Electric” offers great interviews with Davis’s collaborators to explain how Davis made the difficult decision to go “electric” despite great misgivings from the jazz community. Notable recent interviews by Carlos Santana, Joni Mitchell, and the amazing percussionist Airto Moreira explain both Davis’s unique musical style and his amazing cultural impact in the late 1960’s and today. Editors Edward Goldberg and Einar Westerlund do a good job building the narrative to its culmination: Davis’s legendary performance at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 where he and his band perform an incredible 30 minute set in front of 600,000 rock fans who were digging the electric sound.
Turning from the historic to the more personal, Director Jonathan Demme of “Stop Making Sense” fame beautifully captures the story of Neil Young’s reemergence after his struggles with a brain aneurysm—discovered right after the recording of his album “Prairie Wind”—and the recent death of his father, that culminates in the live concert where he gets a change to reconnect with friends and reminisce about his youth. Shot from footage taken before and during the August 18 and 19, 2005 concerts at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry, Demme crafts a simplistic yet heartfelt film. Interviews with Young’s collaborators and friends—EmmyLou Harris and Ben Keith being the most memorable—before the concert act as a prologue to the concert footage and show Young’s journey to celebrate life and friendship after such a close look at death. In our high-tech, fast-paced world, both the film and Young’s music seem to move at a decidedly slower speed, which ultimately enriches the storytelling. Using black screen between songs and a low-tech concert set that merely projects thematically relevant still images behind Young and his musicians, Demme’s camera focuses mainly on the man and his music. Young’s weathered face and guitar strumming literally take center stage. The end result is not so much a film about a concert but more a film that captures the reflective mood of one man and his celebration of a lifetime spent enjoying and playing music in an effort to make sense of his world.
Miles Davis performance of "Call it anything" at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970.