Jim Jarmusch takes a break from his ever-tentative pokings at narrative cinema to deliver a pretty straight-up concert film in "Year of the Horse." Mostly shot in 8mm, pic's willfully rough aesthetic proves a good match to the big, driving sound Neil Young and Crazy Horse have sustained over nearly three decades of collaboration.

Jim Jarmusch takes a break from his ever-tentative pokings at narrative cinema to deliver a pretty straight-up concert film in “Year of the Horse.” Mostly shot in 8mm, pic’s willfully rough aesthetic proves a good match to the big, driving sound Neil Young and Crazy Horse have sustained over nearly three decades of collaboration. Approach also limits appeal, however, with brief theatrical playoff likely en route to international vid and broadcast exposure.

This is no overview of Young’s complex career (which logged a recent minor controversy when he refused to appear at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction for Buffalo Springfield, protesting event’s VH1-telecast commercial constrictions), but rather a labor-of-love ode to his longtime principal band and the powerful noise they make together. Young wryly admits “stealing” his bandmates from the ranks of forgotten unit the Rockets. This collaboration is extraordinarily long-lasting by rock standards — bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina have remained from the start, with guitarist Frank (Poncho) Sempedro still ranked as “the new guy” since he replaced O.D.’d original member Danny Whitten in ’74.

Backstage interviews are a “28 Up” of rock life, with footage from 1976 (shot by a British crew), 1986 (shot by Young himself under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey for the unreleased “Muddy Track” feature) and 1996. The ’70s bits show a band still in hard-partying mode; the newest have players in awe of their long-haul synchronicity, though without much further insight to add. A couple of testy rehearsal glimpses suggest those involved have stuck together more as a result of mutually beneficial combustion than smooth interpersonal harmony.

Main attraction, however, is the nine songs performed here, which range from familiar classics (“Stupid Girl,” “Tonight’s the Night,” “Like a Hurricane”) to more recent compositions. While Young has ranged wide on disc and occasionally in live shows — from country-rock to early-’80s conceptual experiments — his work with Crazy Horse is notable for its huge, driving sound. Superb Dolby recording captures this intensity, though tendency of most songs to end in long-form jams does wear at viewer patience.

All perfs date from 1996 French or Washington state shows, apart from the climactic “Hurricane,” which blends in ’86 footage (and deploys strobe-like lighting and editing effects to more exciting visual impact). Only a final-credit solo acoustic version of “Music Arcade” departs from general throbbing sonic approach. Pic is billed onscreen as being “made loud to be played loud.”

Perhaps alone amongst surviving rock maestros of his generation, Young has maintained full credibility with younger artists (recently collaborating with much-indebted “grunge” kings Pearl Jam) through myriad changes in musical fashion. Still, his integrity seldom resulted in huge hits — 1972’s atypically critically dissed “Harvest,” sans Crazy Horse, was the Top 40 zenith — and cult adulation will get “Year of the Horse” only so far commercially. Nonetheless, it’s an important, unalloyed slice of rock history, despite the limited purview into personalities involved.

Visually, pic reps an extreme in low-tech aesthetic, being mostly, as opening credits crow, “proudly filmed in 8mm.” Subsequent blowup is grainy (and occasionally out-of-focus) enough to suggest Pixelvision. A brief animated seg (by Steve Segal) and mid-song cutaways to rural landscapes and open highways are evocative but no less rough-hewn.

Year of the Horse

Production

A Shakey Pictures presentation. Produced by L.A. Johnson. Executive producers, Bernard Shakey, Elliot Rabinowitz. Directed by Jim Jarmusch.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W, 8mm/16mm/Hi-8 to 35mm), L.A. Johnson, Jarmusch, Arthur Rosato, Steve Onuska; editor, Jay Rabinowitz; additional editing, Joel Heller, Michael Alan Dennis; sound (Dolby), John Hausmann; location mixer, Ned Hall; music mixer, Tim Mulligan; line producer, Marcy Gensix. Reviewed at San Francisco Film Festival, May 8, 1997. Running time: 106 min.

With

Neil Young, Frank (Poncho) Sempedro, Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina.
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