‘Neil Young Journeys” is easily the least of the three documentaries director Jonathan Demme has made with the legendary rocker; but in its shaggy, eccentric way, it may be the truest. If 2006’s “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” played to the mainstream with its evocative sense of acoustic farewell, and “Neil Young Trunk Show” (2010) blew away sentiment with walls of glorious noise, this one basically lets Young piddle around the house.
Not literally, but almost. “Journeys” opens with the singer-songwriter taking us on a tour through his Canadian childhood roots in Omemee — that “town in north Ontario” referenced in “Helpless.” Driving a vintage 1956 Ford Crown Victoria, he points out vacant lots that used to be houses and fishing holes full of anecdotes. It’s a trip down memory lane as only Neil can do it, fondly dour, wayward as a country dog.
While it periodically returns to Omemee, the movie is primarily a document of a two-night solo electric stand at Toronto’s Massey Hall, in May 2011 — the destination, it turns out, of Young’s road trip early in the film. (Chronological editing isn’t a priority here.) The concert sequences yaw between the inspired, the dull, and the just plain weird. Intentionally or not, this film testifies to a third face of Neil: not the hippie of “Harvest” or the wild godfather of grunge, but the willful experimentalist of early productions like “Broken Arrow” and mid-career oddities like “Trans.”
Most of the set list comes from Young’s 2010 release “Le Noise,” with some highly satisfying journeys through the past: “Down by the River,” from 1969, “My My, Hey Hey,” from a decade later. “Ohio” (1970) gets an onscreen memorial to the four students shot at Kent State, just to remind us of what the song’s really about. Familiar tunes are pulled apart and reinvented; “After the Gold Rush” is performed at an organ, the bass pedal pulling the bottom out of the song’s choruses.
There’s an air of ransacking the attic. A little-known song called “Hitchhiker,” written around the time of “Tonight’s the Night” (1975), is a mesmerizing travelogue of drug abuse and longing, Young whaling away on his guitar as if in a trance. The encore, “Walk With Me,” from “Le Noise,” is even further out there, as the singer swings his instrument like a pendulum in front of the speakers until peals of feedback erupt like a dissonant church hymn.
The risk is that these explorations won’t hit a nerve, and there are moments in “Neil Young Journeys,” like an endless version of “Love and War,” where the inwardness never extends out toward the unseen audience. Demme’s filmmaking plays fast and loose with similarly mixed results. It’s intriguing to see a camera shot of Young from inside his piano, but the lens affixed to the singer’s microphone only gives us a fish-eye view of his whiskered chin and tonsils. If you’ve ever wanted to see Neil sing through a glaze of his own spittle, this is the movie for you.
But, hey hey my my, he’s still going his own ornery way. For true believers, “Neil Young Journeys” is a visit with a still-vital friend. For the merely curious, it’s proof that there’s more to the man — more strangeness, deeper communions with the muse — than classic rock radio will ever let on.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.