Canadian iconoclast Neil Young is one classic rocker you can be sure will never just “show up and play the hits.” He’s still making new music, still cranking out ballads, rockers and protest songs well past his 70th year.
“Mountaintop” is his fly-on-the-wall-in-the-studio documentary about recording an album that’s due out Oct. 25. It’s a choppy film, using everything from time-lapse to fish-eye lenses to put us in the place where it was recorded, the Studio in the Clouds outside of Telluride, Colorado, and capture the process by which he and his sometime band of 50 years, Crazy Horse, arrange, practice, engineer and record their songs.
And in between takes, they take hits off small, disposable bottles of oxygen. They’re recording at 8750 feet above sea level, we’re reminded.
We watch four jowly, white-haired old gents — only “new” guitarist Nils Lofgren is under 70 — show the kids how it’s done. They joke, complain, curse and harmonize, everybody deferring to Young, who is still in fine voice and still in charge — of the tunes, the arrangements, the recording session and the film, which he directed under a nom de plume, “Bernard Shakey.”
Ten new songs including “Milky Way,” “Shut it Down” and “Think of Me” are put on (analog) tape in a ski-lodge like studio that one and all complain about — loudly.
Drummer Ralph Molina steps out from behind the hit to add a “clickety clack, clickety clack” soft-shoe tap dance (on a tap dancer board) to one track. Young and Lofgren trade licks on their Gibson Les Paul guitars.
A glass harmonica — an instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin that never caught on (wet fingertips play a spinning series of glass jars, leading to nerve damage) — is trotted out to play chords on a mournful ballad.
Engineer and co-producer John Hanlon listens to the band’s complaints about feedback, poor playback quality studio monitors (speakers) and hits the roof over the state of the place’s wiring and electronics. Of course, that could be his epic poison oak infection acting out.
“Rollin’ around in the grass with some babe in Malibu?” Young slyly jokes.
Young reminds us he can still high some pretty high notes, and he still has a political chip on his shoulder, on songs like “Rainbow of Colors,” his denunciation of Trump era xenophobia.
“There’s a ‘Rainbow of Colors’ in the old U.S.A.,” he croons. “No one’s gonna whitewash those colors away.”
The sessions, according to a Telluride newspaper account I read, happened in August, so this project was pieced together in great haste — live, on tape, with snatches of songs performed in an intimate concert setting edited in.
As a film, it’s not particularly revealing and adds little to what we know and understand about Young, who has been the subject of more tour documentaries with snippets of biography included than virtually any musician alive. The best were made by his friend and devoted fan, the late Oscar winning director Jonathan Demme.
But Young believes in documenting it all. He’s got 15 more concert and studio recording films in production, sessions recording the album, “Harvest” in 1971, Tokyo and London concerts, solo tours from the ’80s.
Yes, they’d make a better movie if they were artfully cut together to create a single complete “history” of the man and his band. But he’s hellbent on serving the “completists” in his fanbase, so into the editing bay he goes — suspending touring while he knocks these many projects out.
Vanity? Money? Money for charity? Who knows? He’s determined to do it and he’s certainly enough of a presence in music to pull them all off.
“Mountaintop’ will have a special one-night-only national theatrical release Oct. 22, three days before the album “Colorado” comes out.
MPAA Rating: unrated, profanity, drug jokes
Cast: Neil Young, Billy Talbott, Ralph Molina, Nils Lofgren, John Hanlon
Credits: Directed by Bernard Shakey (aka “Neil Young”). An Abramorama release.
Running time: 1:31