Like A Hurricane
If the human nervous system could be amplified, it may sound like the high whine of Neil Young's voice and guitar. The subject of an unabashed fan film, Year of The Horse, the enigmatic Young is no longer that, but you wouldn't know it from the energy he and the rest of the band, Crazy Horse, generate onstage. It's this intensity that fuels this jittery, rough film by none other than Jim Jarmusch, wielding a Super-8 camera and traveling with the band on tour in 1996.As Jarmusch has declared, this is not a concert film (but it has a lot of concert footage), and it's not a documentary (though it's punctuated by harshly lit interviews in hotel rooms and other anonymous spaces). Coming on the heels of the brilliant Dead Man, for which Neil Young scored the music, Year of The Horse reveals that just when you think Jarmusch is going to zig, he zags. The carefully and beautifully composed style of Dead Man is polar opposite from Year of the Horse's grainy look, shaky camera, rough edits, mike booms hanging in the frames, and very few personal revelations from anyone involved with Crazy Horse. Jarmusch himself is in several scenes, making this an inclusive little picture about both the subject and the director -- highly individualistic artists who have bucked the mainstream and followed their own paths. It's a perfect match.But don't see Year of the Horse to find out how the band has stayed together for 30 years, their backgrounds outside of music, their families, their beliefs. This is not a film that answers questions, but one which gets up close and personal with the creative process. Aging band members Billy Talbot (bass), "Poncho" Sampedro (guitar), Larry Molina (drums) and a balding Young (wearing baggy shorts onstage in the 1996 footage), are barely and rarely articulate offstage. Talbot can't speak for an on-camera interview without twitching his guitar; "Poncho" is the most articulate, with slicing wit; Molina seems to have lost the language part of his brain; and Young evades the camera most of the time. They communicate through the music, gestures, and sound, playing at such an emotional pitch the audience doesn't seem to matter. They even close ranks in a tight triangle, backs to the audience, when they are running particularly hot. Neil Young fanatics will already know some of the band's history (briefly) described in the film. About the brilliant guitarist Danny Whitten who died of an overdose in 1972, the day after he was fired from the band. About their producer, David Briggs, who died in 1995, whose last words to Young were "This is the year of the horse." And beloved roadie Bruce Berry, also an overdose victim, immortalized in Young's edgy and still moving "Tonight's The Night." Neil Young's father, Scott Young, claims Crazy Horse is better now than ever, citing the obvious onstage intensity. However, the proof is in the footage. Concert clips from 1976, 1986 and 1996 reveal a devolution of Young, in favor of a complete collaboration by the whole band. In the early years, his startling sound and lacerating lyrics were wonders, and he fronted the band comfortably as the star. But by 1996, Young has blended with the band and stepped out of the spotlight. One of the best scenes features concert footage of "Like a Hurricane" beginning in '96, cutting back 20 years, then back to '96: same song, same voice, but totally different interpretation, as if the younger Young singing about "getting blown away" is a supreme act of cynicism, and the older Young infuses it with an acute sense of loss. Jarmusch weaves other threads through the film -- sped-up landscapes from outside a train, clouds, roads -- revealing life between tour stops as a constant, dizzying travel. And he even gets on-camera criticism from the band, especially "Poncho": "Who do you think you are, some artsy-fartsy New Yorker coming in here to ask cute questions to sum up 30 years of insanity?" Jarmusch's calm, ironic presence cuts through such defensiveness. Year of the Horse is not Jarmusch's next masterpiece. If you are a Neil Young or Crazy Horse fan, you will have already made plans to see it. And if you grew up with Young's music, you will hear chords you know from a long time ago, with myriad attached memories, and a vaguely remembered promise that we could and would do anything we wanted. As for that, the film is bittersweet.