If you ever wished you could be a fly on the wall at a Neil Young recording session, his new film “Mountaintop” may put that desire to the test. Or at least it’ll severely try the patience of any unsuspecting dates who get dragged along by Young fanatics to the movie’s one night in North American theaters Oct. 22, as they realize, possibly to their horror, that the entire film is going to consist of borderline found footage picked up by stationary cameras in a recording studio where Young and his band Crazy Horse are cutting a new album. Relationships have broken up under far less stress than the strain that “Mountaintop” will put on mixed couples, where only one partner may think hearing Young barking at his bandmates and engineers over the audibility of their monitor mixes counts as a fun night out at the movies.
It’s a small subset even of the Young faithful, then, that will enjoy “Mountaintop.” But speaking as part of that very subset — and someone who would never, ever subject a loved one to an experience quite this micro-targeted toward the mega-fan — I’d say that “Mountaintop” provides a valuable service in capturing what it’s like to be in a recording studio at length, with all the bickering and tiny experiments and small eureka moments that entails, better than any other music doc ever has. It may be useful to think of this less as a documentary, anyway, than as part of another movie tradition. Young and his group have set up at a studio built into a large home high in the Rocky Mountains, where we get only the most fleeting glimpses of the beauty outside the creative claustrophobia indoors. So you could almost place it in the same genre as “The Shining” and “The Hateful Eight” — movies where a group of characters is clustered indoors, away from the winter weather, and might all kill each other before they get to put footprints in the snow again.
Young is working again under his longstanding filmmaking pseudonym “Bernard Shakey,” a nom de plume that all but advertises that we should never expect what you’d call a steady directorial hand at the helm. In the ultra-vérité “Mountaintop,” “Shakey” assumes filmgoers knows why they’re there, so he doesn’t include any on-screen identifying credits or have anyone mention that this is the first album he’s recorded with Crazy Horse in seven years (and first since old comrade Nils Lofgren signed on as a key new member). The title of the album doesn’t even get a mention (it’s “Colorado,” and it comes out Friday). What do voyeuristic flies need with chyrons or backstory, right?
With no interviews or other supplementary footage, the film just offers glimpses of the 10 new songs being recorded, one at a time, in what would seem to be a compressed period at the Studio in the Clouds, near Telluride. Oxygen tubes have been brought in to assist the musicians and engineers — and no other apparent substances, although drummer Ralph Molina is seen angrily begging, apparently in vain, for a joint. None of the songs are played through exactly in their entirety, as the live sessions frequently stop or the film cuts to different audio in in the control room. Tensions run quite high at times, with Young complaining that “I love singing into a wet sock” or telling a band member caught unawares going into a fresh take that “maybe you should practice that one for a few minutes” or kvetching about “one of the worst f—in’ monitor systems known to man.” Co-producer John Hanlon — whose ongoing bout with poison oak comprises the closest thing the film has to a subplot — says that the Colorado compound is “the most f—ed up studio I’ve ever worked in in my f—ing life” and declares he’s about to leave the project. Aware that he’s been on camera the whole time, he demands the last half-hour of footage be erased … which, amusingly, of course, it was not. Young comes off as testy under pressure, to say the least, but a certain level of crotchety-ness is part of the brand, so hardcore fans may love every epithet that slips from his lips, in-between the moments where he’s singing sweet odes to Mother Nature.
To say that this inside of a peek into the recording process is for specialized tastes risks being an understatement. But “Mountaintop,” if nothing else, may be about to become every oft-beleaguered producer or recording engineer’s favorite cult movie. For the rest of us, it offers a lot of small pleasures, too, once you accept its hemmed-in setting and settle into its rhythms. When Young likes what is happening around him in the studio, he lights up with some very Neil aphorisms, like “I like doing it trashy because it’s a fine song” and “It doesn’t have to be good; it’s going to be great.” In the end, the film turns out be a testament to how collaboration doesn’t have to be completely touchy-feely to work out just fine. Some flies on the wall will have buzzed off to an adjacent theater in the multiplex before Young and company get through all 10 songs, but to the survivors go the epic jam moments and guitar-hero solo squalls.