*So, Year of the Horse is a music documentary, directed by Jim Jarmusch, about Neil Young & Crazy Horse. I am immediately torn, given that Neil Young is a genius, yet also given that music documentaries are generally not good and I can’t imagine Jarmusch doing a good one.
*It should be noted that it’s just an insane idea to try to do a serious music documentary in this post-Spinal Tap era. I mean, how do you even think about doing a serious doc in a world where Spinal Tap exists?
*Well, anyway, let’s get started.
*We begin with each of the band members introducing themselves. Billy, the bass player. Ralph, the drummer. Pancho, the guitarist. And Neil, singer/guitarist.
*So, okay, one of the big beefs with this movie was, I guess, the absolutely crappy quality of the film. It’s essentially some raw footage from the 70s and 80s, plus a bunch of footage Jarmusch shot on a tour in 96, but it’s all been shot on video or Super8 or whatever and anyway, it’s all extremely grainy and dark and half the time it’s just ugly to look at. In Roger Ebert’s 0 star review, which is why I’m watching it, this was the issue he spent the most time blasting.
*So, Glasgow, 1976, the band sets a centerpiece on fire and then seems entirely unable to put it out.
*This is literally like three minutes of footage of these idiots trying to smother a flaming bouquet with napkins. Though I did rather love the bit at the end where Neil is trying to tell their hostess about it.
*Then we get to their live rendition of Fuckin’ Up. This is not one of Young’s best songs, but see, the thing about Crazy Horse is their ability to just find a riff and then just ride it until it drops. And they ride this one for over ten minutes.
*I mean, it is incredible music. It’s hypnotic, just this grinding riff. And there’s this great shot of the audience dancing and you realize that, yes, this is actually amazing music to dance too.
*So, I’ll just tell you flat out that I don’t think this is a bad movie. I actually enjoyed it. This is not to say that all the interviews and behind the scene stuff is interesting. No, it’s to say that the music is great, brilliant, wonderful and that’s really enough.
*There’s this wonderful scene of the band arguing and saying “fuck” about a thousand times after a show in 1986.
*Neil’s father appears.
*Some more or less Spinal Tap dialogue from one of the greatest musicians of our lifetimes: “Ralph is the quiet one, but he’s also very funny. Ralph’s very funny and he’s steady as a rock. I love playing with Ralph. Billy’s the center, in some ways cause he plays these big notes, but it’s more that Billy is a sound. It’s a sound and it’s a feeling that is a big part of us. Pancho brings a strength. He just has this energy and this strength. He’s just this core of strength. When he’s there, everything is strong.”
*Ralph: steady as a rock. Billy: the big center. Pancho: the strong core. Is it just me or all those things actually the EXACT SAME THING? I don’t think Neil can even tell them apart.
*He then says, “It’s hard to describe it in words.” Well, apparently.
*You know, if these people could talk, they wouldn’t be musicians, would they?
*But luckily then it’s time for some music again, namely She Slipped Away. The live footage from the 96 tour is spliced with some wonderfully grainy and evocative driving footage from one of the tours in the seventies.
*I don’t know, I mean, all this grain and flares and such . . . It’s making me remember why I actually don’t like the clean anti-septic world created in a lot of movies these days. Give me grain and shake over CGI any day.
*I mean, this movie might be considered ‘ugly.’ But then you look at a movie like The Phantom Menace or something and how utterly artificial and horrible it is. That’s ugly. Grain and lens flare and such: that’s beautiful.
*Watching Young play the guitar reminds me of something a friend of mine once said about the great Jeff Healey: “How can something that looks so ridiculous sound so sublime?”
*So, this live footage, it’s pretty bad. It’s shaky and often from a great distance and such. I mean it’s better than what one sees on YouTube but not a whole lot and not all the time. I mean, it’s still great, just don’t expect like pristine shots of Young’s finger work.
*So, this one is over eight minutes. I tell you it’s the saving grace of this film that the great majority of it is music.
*Some footage from 76 of Young and the band hanging out beneath the stage trying to decide what to play for their encore. They decide on Homegrown and exit. We then jump to live footage of a 96 performance of Homegrown. Which, that’s actually a nice little connection there.
*This other guitar player, Pancho, he’s like a bodybuilder or something.
*More travelling footage spliced in during this one. And then some great footage of their roadies setting up in a Roman amphitheatre.
*Oh, we get our first meta shot during this montage of Jim Jarmusch looking through a small camera. See, that’s something I hate about Jarmusch; he’s too meta for his own good. I mean, keep yourself out of the movie, dude.
*This has this wonderful ending where they just keep hitting this same chord over and over and over again. It’s just incredible. And pushes this song over ten minutes too, I think.
*But I mean this is classic Crazy Horse; just one chord, just one stinging chord, but they just refuse to let it go and actually end the song.
*Some back stage foolishness as Billy does a routine about a bouquet sent to them by Paul McCartney; Ralph watches RoboCop in his hotel room and Neil calls Pancho to come help him with his computer because it’s frozen up.
*Pancho goes off on a good natured rant about how Jarmusch is just trying to make some artsy film to make himself look cool and that he’ll never understand Crazy Horse. Jarmusch leaves this in so as to prove his authenticity or something.
*This is probably the longest non-musical section of the film. And it’s only about ten minutes or so. Maybe a little less.
*Live rendition of Stupid Girl.
*Whoa, what, like three minutes? That’s like almost normal length for a song.
*Section about Danny Whitten, the original guitarist. And the formation of the band. Danny eventually overdosed on heroin and Pancho was brought in as a replacement. Neil calls Pancho the “New Guy,” despite the fact that he’s been with them since 1974.
*There is a moment of real poingancy when Ralph muses on “the evil shit” that did Danny in. Jarmusch (off screen) asks how old Danny was when he died and Ralph is stricken by his answer: “Twenty-five? Twenty-four?”
*There’s a nice moment when Pancho reveals that he used to sit in his bedroom and play along with Everybody Knows This is Nowhere before he was a member of the band.
*It’s Not Over. Great song. Wonderful live rendition. Part of this has an animated train thing going on.
*This is actually incredibly powerful, these old men, survivors of the seventies, still on stage singing about the dream continuing. I found this whole montage/performance incredibly moving. “I’m still living the dream we had/for me it’s not over.”
*I really don’t know how to even talk about why I enjoyed this and why some people hated it, including Roger Ebert, because it’s such a visual and musical film. But I just love all the concert footage.
*Great backstage footage from 1986 as the band rehearses some harmonies on Dancing Across the Water. This one actually cracked me up. It has the complete idiocy of Spinal Tap.
*It climaxes when Billy gets fed up and storms out because he says there’s nothing for them to work on and then Neil shouts after him that Billy’s the one who called the practice in the first place.
*There’s a section about David Briggs, longtime producer for the band who had recently passed in 1996. Briggs looks a lot like Ian McShane. Like the young McShane.
*So, these are like the most embarrassingly lame tributes to a dead friend I’ve ever heard.
*Ralph: “He’s one guy I never thought wouldn’t be around. Physically, I mean.”
*Billy: “He was a rugged individual and, you know, some of us in the band are. I’m not gonna name any names, you know?”
*Pancho: “He had attitude for days.”
*WHAT DOES ANY OF THAT MEAN?!
*Again, these guys are not exactly compelling (or bright) without their instruments close to hand.
*Live version of Tonight’s the Night. And this is just astounding.
*I mean, they just slay this one. It’s a slow burner of a start with some incredible guitar work.
*And then it just builds and builds and builds and then slowly gets quiet again and then it just starts building again. . . I mean, wow, this is worth the price of admission all by itself, if you ask me.
*Also, well over ten minutes. Wonderful. Probably the best number in the movie for me.
*It ends with Young sort of just flailing his guitar to get these storms of feedback and the visual is just this black and white visual of absolute grain and you can’t see anything.
*There then follows some backstage footage of Young in Glasgow listening to a drag queen talk about how he/she is really Jesus. It’s Young’s sort of befuddled politeness that makes this scene as funny as it is. He finally leaves the young man with a pat on the shoulder and the remark: “Well, that’s great. Good luck. Hope you make it this time. Last time was pretty rough.”
*Then there’s this absurd scene of Jarmusch reading to Young from the Bible, while Young sort of halfway pretends to be interested. I mean, dude, will you frigging cut this crap out? I mean, this pretentiousness is not what I want from this movie. How Jarmusch could keep a straight face through this absurd routine is just beyond me. I mean, it’s such a horrible Spinal Tap moment.
*JARMUSCH: “It’s the voice of God speaking to Ezekiel.” YOUNG: “Wow. God is like, uh . . . well, I think . . . I never thought . . . I now think . . . it reminds me of this time I planted these trees and then they weren’t the way I thought they were going to be so I chopped them all down.” JARMUSCH: “Huh. Who do you think you are, God?” YOUNG: “Yeah, right.” *long awkward silence*
*Thanks for that. My understanding of Young’s music has been incredibly enriched by that blather.
*Gotta Get Away, which is kind of my least favorite musical sequence.
*There’s this great scene of Young playing My Girl on the electric as the band does that classic My Girl riff. I mean, that is just sublime.
*So, then at one hour and thirty-three minutes, we move to the climax. So, it’s just this absolutely tremendous, blistering roar of racket from the band. At one point, you can see that the bass player, Billy, is just hammering his bass with two flattened hands, just slamming it with his hands. And it’s this incredible racket and this incredible strobe effect and jumpy editing and . . . I am not even being facetious when I say that I could see how this could induce a seizure. I’m not even joking. It’s that frenetic and loud and violent and brutal. And this is one medium sized screen in my bedroom. I can’t imagine seeing this sequence of the film in an actual theater.
*And then, wonderfully, they segue, after two minutes of this, into Young playing this incredible clean guitar line from Hurricane. So, we watch about a minute of Crazy Horse in 96 playing Hurricane. And then they cut quite suddenly to this live performance of Hurricane from the seventies. And it’s just amazing. I mean, Young’s guitar work is just amazing.
*Then, after about five minutes of that, we go back to 96 for the finish of that performance of Hurricane and they just go back into this squalling, roaring feedback thing and we see Jarmusch in these little flashes filming on the side of the stage and it gets even more frenetic and seizure inducing than it was before.
*And so Young ends up kneeling by his guitar and hitting it and stuff and then he gets this big candle and is like waving it around and spinning in circles and I admit I started to get a little tired.
*And then, the feedback all dies after another five minutes or so and we roll credits. Under the credits Young sings a solo acoustic version of Music Arcade. Also, there’s a sheet of credits that tells where each of the performances were recorded.
*So, final thoughts? Well, Young’s a musical genius and, incredibly, he’s a genius in two totally different arenas, the crooning acoustic folk arena and the screaming electric rock arena. And one can hardly pick a favorite mode, so great is he at both. This film is dedicated to his loud persona.
*So, the behind the scenes moments are generally either dull or idiotic and none of the band members, including Young, can talk worth a crap. And Jarmusch needs to stop acting like such a twit.
*But I don’t care, so great is the music and so wonderful is it to watch them play live. This is not an essential movie or anything, but it has some amazing music.
*I enjoyed this movie a lot actually, Ebert’s zero star review be damned. No, the images are not clean and pristine; neither is the music and who would listen to it, if it was?