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Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Film Review of the Moment: MOUNTAINTOP by Neil Young & Crazy Horse

MOUNTAINTOP - Neil Young & Crazy Horse

The Film Review of the Moment on MOUNTAINTOP by Neil Young & Crazy Horse by Scotsman, commenting on "How Neil Young's Eccentric Online Home Was Born | Fortune":
I've been to the Mountaintop and I have come back down again (apologies, to those who would have been quite happy for me to stay there indefinitely). And here are my traditional "long-winded", "pompous" comments.

This film might as well have been purpose-made for me. This sort of thing is right up my street. Rarely have I enjoyed a Neil Young project so much in recent years, which is a bold statement in a period that has included gems such as Earth. I'm not *always* a fan of studio documentaries, but sometimes, they are an essential part of the story. Mountaintop has its own story to tell.

This is one of those great documentaries where Neil just sets up the cameras and captures everything, and so, of course, everyone forgets they are being filmed and just acts naturally; or as naturally as you can expect in an environment that seems best described as "disorganised chaos", occasionally threatening to careen into "hostile".

Of course, our director Bernard Shakey (who looks both younger and significantly slimmer following his recent move towards an environmentally-friendly vegetarian diet) is still well aware he is being filmed, and as with Muddy Track, you do get the sense from time-to-time that the old rascal might just be encouraging a little bit of drama for filming purposes.

Regardless, there's an avalanche of natural drama occurring without any provocation from Neil. There's the cringe-worthy moment Neil puts his ear against a monitor speaker just as an ear-piercing squeal decides to emit from it, with the (hilariously) on-edge studio crew becoming increasingly frantic in trying to keep the chaotic studio under control. Or the moment an apoplectic John Hanlon (Neil's head engineer) orders the cameras removed from the studio so his x-rated ranting isn't included in the film (of course, it is). Then there's the beautiful moment where the camera continues picking up sound as it is removed from the studio, and someone see the bright side of the situation: "it's mayhem in there...but the moon's out and the mountain looks beautiful". I found it to be both moving and funny.

Now, the studio they are recording in looks very pleasant to me, but the emphasis throughout from Neil and Hanlon is that they are working in something much like a First World War trench. And just like the finished album, Mountaintop is full of this sense of sometimes-uneasy contrast between beauty and ugliness, chaos and control, focused attitude and light-hearted humour. Tender piano melodies paired with squealing speakers and gratuitous use of the F-bomb. It's just a really typical Neil Young project, full of character, and as such it feels completely timeless: squint a little, and it could have been shot 30 years ago.

At the heart of this film is the relationship between Neil and Hanlon. Crazy Horse are, as always, a little bit in the shadows: which of course is where they are most at home. As for Neil's relationship with Hanlon, it comes across as not entirely unlike that of Laurel and Hardy. Hanlon gets his fair share of Neil's wrath (rather mild, by rock star standards) in this film, but it's telling that when Hanlon asserts himself Neil quickly changes tact. You can easily imagine how the personalities of producer David Briggs and Neil balanced each other out in previous years. In this instance, It's all just a bit of studio banter among brothers, the long-established rituals of making a Crazy Horse album.

There are so many memorable bits, but I loved the section where Neil is prancing around the control room listening to Olden Days and suddenly breaks out into a Cheshire Cat grin: enjoying the music and tambourine overdubs, no doubt, but I suspect also impressed at his ability to (just about) hit a sequence of high notes that probably would have been out of his range at age 18, let alone 73. I loved all the creative touches, the tap dancing on Eternity, the glass harmonica, Ralph's typically dead-pan humour, Neil's little comments (e.g "it doesn't have to be good, it just has to be great") followed again by that familiar Cheshire Cat grin. And "One of the worst f*!#in' monitor systems known to man", delivered in the voice of a man who has seen his fair share of substandard audio equipment, I thought was hilarious.

The bottom line is it is infinitely more entertaining to watch Neil actively battling to make a great record in a dysfunctional studio in the middle of nowhere with a rough-around-the-edges Crazy Horse than it is when he steps into some technically-perfect Hollywood studio and tries to buy his way to artistic greatness with hired orchestras or celebrity producers. Sometimes, in recent years, I get the sense he's not really applying himself in the studio, particularly as a songwriter: full of great ideas but ultimately settling for the low hanging fruit. But I did not get this impression on most of Colorado. It's an album (and especially a film) that has both soul and substance, and that's what we are all here for.

Mountaintop has now disappeared back into the Archives, but I think it deserves a more permanent spot somewhere: either on NYA, or preferably as a Blu-Ray release. Actually, scratch that: I think it's best suited to being passed around as a 3rd generation bootleg, old-school-style. We'll see what happens, but in the meantime I am pleased Neil made this film. It might not be the best Crazy Horse album ever, but it's certainly one with a lot of special moments, and Mountaintop has a lot of additional special moments, too. I found it to be artistically moving, revealing, and genuinely very funny.

And, as a bonus, it's confirmed that my decision not to become a sound engineer was in fact a very lucky escape.

Thank you Scotsman. Your comments are invaluable and we never find them to be "long-winded" or "pompous". Freedom of speech, just one's opinion is always welcome here at TW.

We did have the pleasure of viewing MOUNTAINTOP in an actual theater on opening night. The film really does offer a pretty unfiltered view on the creative process. Certainly about as close as an outsider will ever get so we're all lucky for that. And it is nice to see the unsung heroes get their moment in the spotlight. Although John Hanlon may not have found the finished edit quite to his liking, it does demonstrate the dedication necessary on the smallest details to achieve success in the studio.

"I want it up as loud as it can go!" - Neil
Neil Young & Crazy Horse in the Studio

(Frame via film Mountaintop)

More on the film MOUNTAINTOP by Neil Young & Crazy Horse.

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At 1/15/2020 10:35:00 AM, Blogger Andy said...

I liked the movie very much. I really appreciated the warts-and-all depiction that Neil allowed. It could have been all the nice moments and fun times, or general back-slapping. Instead, you get the good and bad. At times, I thought Neil, Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina came off as entitled jerks! At other times, they are funny, friendly and general nice guys! I felt bad for John Hanlon. You see him having fun, but you also see him attempt deescalation, lose it and even doubt his abilities. I feel he'd make a good diplomat in another life. Nils Lofgren comes off as pretty unflappable. I guess that's the ideal role for the studio musician and back-up guy.

Overall, I really appreciated a view into Neil's process. When he feels he has "the take" in him, he wants to record right now, before the feeling goes away. I suppose you can't argue with the results.

At 1/15/2020 11:08:00 AM, Blogger Gary A. Lucero said...

While I certainly thought Mountaintop was interesting, and especially enjoyed seeing the overdub process, it didn't seem like a "must-see" film in many ways. In the first place, Colorado isn't my favorite Neil Young album. It has some good songs, but it continues a trend of too many that focus specifically on what may be the most important issue of our times (climate change), but isn't always interesting to hear about in song form.

Outside of my indifference for Colorado, why wasn't Crazy Horse more of a focus? Year of the Horse at least let us hear form The Horse, but in Mountaintop they are mostly seen rather than heard from, and the focus appeared to be the conflict of Neil vs. John Hanlon and the rest of the crew. There's also the issue of a recording studio that wasn't properly wired. All these conflicts were never resolved and there isn't much of a story nor was it really much of a documentary.

And while I realize a Shakey production isn't supposed to be very good, that doesn't mean it can't be better than it was. Neil is old enough and hopefully wise enough now to do a better job, and I for one am not willing to give him a pass just because he's the greatest singer/songwriter/guitarist to have ever lived.

At 1/15/2020 01:54:00 PM, Blogger Richie Cruz said...

We can overanalyze everything, and some here certainly do, but honestly Neil comes off like a guy I wouldn't want to work for, and sorry, but the resulting music isn't that great.

We miss Briggs. He could handle Neil acting like a jerk, and still coax incredible music out of the guy.

At 1/15/2020 03:19:00 PM, Blogger Dan Swan said...

As I mentioned on an earlier post, Mountaintop is meant to be a fly on the wall experience. I don’t believe that Neil was attempting to create a film for the masses. The film is specifically intended for his fans to get a visual record of the album being created. Taken with this in mind, I feel the effort was quite successful. Many fans have never been involved in the recording process and this is a opportunity to see how difficult it can be. Music doesn’t just happen, it requires a group of dedicated people who have the expertise and passion for the process. It can be challenging work, especially when working with Neil.

It’s important to realize that it’s Neil’s songs, and he has to get what he wants before he’s happy, and that is apparently not always easy. As outsiders, it’s easy to make judgments but I think the results speak for themselves. Colorado is a great record, at least in my opinion.


At 1/15/2020 05:02:00 PM, Blogger Roberto said...

My little add-on to these valuable comments is that it's all about making music and keeping friendship. is it enough?

At 1/15/2020 05:03:00 PM, Blogger Dionys said...

"Mountaintop" appears to be a somewhat elaborate visual paraphrase of the famous Edison dictum "Genius is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration." Or was it "transpiration"? I am ok with the 1% and feel kind of relieved that even for NY & CH there is the ordeal of the other 99%. And I strongly believe that in principle and idiosyncrasies aside 30 years ago it was not much different with David Briggs in the other room. Just the 1% were the result of forty-somethings' 99% perspiration. Back then they might have needed more of that oxygen because of the other intakes.

At 1/15/2020 06:19:00 PM, Blogger Shakeydave said...

loved Mountaintop and loved Colorado.....mostly i don't analyze anymore, i just appreciate....maybe that's what being an old hippie (Rustie?) does to you lol....cheers mates and keep on rockin!

At 1/16/2020 05:49:00 AM, Blogger Lewis said...

Spot on, Scotsman!

At 1/16/2020 11:05:00 AM, Blogger Dan Swan said...

Off topic: Today on NYA Bill Bentley writes a wonderful and heartfelt review of the upcoming release of the Greendale Live film. If you’re a subscriber I highly recommended reading his thoughts. Very moving.


At 1/17/2020 07:15:00 AM, Blogger PeterAnthony said...

At first viewing I was taken aback by Neil being somewhat nasty but when you see him after the sessions with the engineers you realize it's not anything personal. They get along fine at the end of the day and seem happy with each other and the album.

At 1/17/2020 11:20:00 AM, Blogger DREman said...

For me the overdub process was really fun to observe: Nils in tap shoes. Live performances morphing into studio productions. The use of a Ben Franklin glass harmonica. Different versions of some songs, as it relates to the release.
In terms of Neil being so angry - Everyone needs to understand that the recording process costs money. Look at all of those people running around and think about the cost involved in payroll and equipment. Billy, Ralph, and Nils flew in for a period of time, but the clock was ticking until their departure. If it takes 2 days to finally nail a song, then it takes three weeks to record an ablum. At some point, there is no more time to keep playing - either because of sleep or because of returns home. When 50% of your recording time is consumed by a equipment that was not working, according to how it should, then you can understand why he'd act as he did. Time is money, and each day, Neil, Ralph, Billy, and Nils are one day closer to running out of time forever. I am thankful they keep giving us new experiences.
I really, really, liked DH's inclusion of scenery: mountains, star, clouds, moons, equipment - beyond the music.
I think what we saw is the truth of what it is like for anyone working in the industry. It is also why most bands disband.
It was very personal, and for that reason, I loved it. The music is really good too, and we even got the hear a bonus track.

At 1/17/2020 05:16:00 PM, Blogger PeterAnthony said...

Great comments thanks.


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