Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for opening across Canada this summer, with an exclusive engagement at The Royal, Toronto, July 23-26.
There is a short list of great concert films. It is Woodstock, The Last Waltz, Don’t Look Back, Gimme Shelter, The TAMI Show and Stop Making Sense with arguments to be made for Rust Never Sleeps. Solo Trans, the 1984 Neil Young concert film directed by the late and under-appreciated Hal Ashby (best known for Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Bound for Glory and Being There) isn’t going to make that list, despite it being a great Neil Young performance.
The music here is fantastic, with Young performing much of it by himself, which in my opinion is when he’s at his best live.
The thing is, the film is framed and intercut with a fake newscast anchored by Dan Clear (Newell Alexander) giving updates and interviews and setting up what was going to happen next. These segments were written by Alexander, Young and frequent Young collaborator LA Johnson and even before knowing that for sure, I knew it was a Young concoction. He seemed bent on making his concert films as artificial as possible in the late 70s and early 80s by inserting these bits into this film and the oversized props and Jawa-looking ‘Road-eyes’ into Rust Never Sleeps. These distractions, minor in Rust Never Sleeps but major in Solo Trans take away from the real draw: the amazing music.
The music here is fantastic, with Young performing much of it by himself, which in my opinion is when he’s at his best live. He pulls from his whole career, even delving back into his Buffalo Springfield days with a solo performance (aided by some electronic devices to simulate a band) of Mr. Soul and a rousing version of Ohio from his first stint with CSNY. He draws on his bestselling record even to this day, Harvest, for a few early numbers including his only #1 hit Heart of Gold and Old Man.
After an irritating intermission of sorts where two girls are ‘interviewed’ by Clear about Young’s concert and they say they’re there for Neil and the Shocking Pinks, whom Clear has never heard of. Young is then asked about The Shocking Pinks and he discloses that they are the first rock band he ever saw live and they had a great impact on him. Since The Shocking Pinks was the name of the band he used for his most recent album at the time, Everybody’s Rockin’, and as it was an album of rock standards and originals in the same vein, he came out as a 50’s rocker with The Shocking Pinks and did a mix of old rock songs and some of his own tunes, one being a new one for the concert and all were great. The band had a lot of energy and Young performed with his usual gusto.
The faux TV segments are filmed static befitting TV news of the day with cheap sets and awful early 80’s computer animation.
On Ashby’s direction, there’s really not much to say. It felt like he was limited in part to not having much if any experience in filming this sort of thing and, probably to a greater extent, Young’s ideas of how it should be done and Young’s imprint is more felt than anything Ashby brought to the project. The faux TV segments are filmed static befitting TV news of the day with cheap sets and awful early 80’s computer animation. It’s the concert footage that becomes electric with Young’s excellent performance and Ashby’s sometimes very intimate camera. He’d get up in Young’s face, showing the intense emotion that is pouring from Young, who often gets completely lost in his performances. Ashby captures all of the intensity generated in this tiny venue giving the performance parts a degree of intimacy that is ultimately ruined by the irritating, obnoxious ‘news’ breaks.
Those interludes undercut what could have been a great concert film. They eat up as much as 15 minutes of the hour-long run time, maybe more. It felt as though those sequences were the center of the film and not the music, which was a big mistake. Again, I can’t fault Ashby for this, but I do fault Young. In an attempt to keep his concerts novel, he sacrificed what people really went there to see: him playing his amazing music. I hope the actual concerts on his Trans tour were longer than this film, but if they all had those irritating interludes, maybe an hour is all anyone could take. My biggest hope is that those pieces were invented for the film and were not part of his actual concerts on that tour, but I have a suspicion that they were included.
That’s why Solo Trans never shows up on any of those best of concert films lists. Still, it’s great to see Young at a time that while his career was starting to go into a kind of doldrums as the 80’s weren’t kind to most prominent artists from the 60’s and 70’s. Bob Dylan hit his slump in ’78, ahead of the curve as always, and didn’t emerge until ’89, while others started to fade later but revived much more quickly, as Young did at the onset of the grunge scene in the early ‘90s when he was christened the ‘Grandfather of Grunge’, a very suited title. Young’s never lost his edge or his fire and it’s great to see him here, even with those major distractions.
Solo Trans never shows up on any of those best of concert films lists. Still, it’s great to see Young at a time that while his career was starting to go into a kind of doldrums as the 80’s weren’t kind to most prominent artists from the 60’s and 70’s. Young’s never lost his edge or his fire and it’s great to see him here, even with some major distractions.