..

YEAR OF THE HORSE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Neil Young and Crazy Horse
Director:  Jim Jarmusch
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1, Stereo
Video:  Widescreen 1.77:1
Studio:  USA Home Entertainment
Features:  Interviews, Theatrical Trailer, Coming Attractions, DVD ROM Extras
Length:  109 Minutes
Release Date:  November 14, 2000

Film ***

I couldn’t help but chuckle when Year of the Horse, the concert/documentary film about Neil Young and Crazy Horse made by legendary indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch arrived at my house.  The last book I read was I Hated, Hated, HATED This Movie by Roger Ebert, and one of the many movies targeted for verbal laceration within it was this film.  I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it myself, not necessarily because of the Ebert ravaging, but because I never cared for Neil Young’s music.

It turns out that Crazy Horse is one of those bands like the Grateful Dead…it’s not really their records or what they put on the radio that made them rock and roll staples…it was their live shows.  This movie playfully slaps Crazy Horse with the moniker “3rd Greatest Garage Band Ever” (I have no clue who the first two would be).  As I watched the movie unfold, I couldn’t help but think of my own garage band years, and I understood the reference.  The difference is, in most garage bands, you work and work and work, and every once in awhile, you stumble across that magical moment when all members are in a kind of cosmic harmony with each other:  when the music seems to make itself as the players follow suit.  You tend to rise and fall at the same times, building and lowering, even increasing or decreasing speed, going in new directions, and it all works.  It’s a moment so rare that when it happened, I would want it to go on forever.  Crazy Horse, however, is a band that seems to perpetually live in that moment.

Not being a Neil Young fan, I confess I didn’t recognize any of the tunes until the finale of “Like a Hurricane”.  But that didn’t stop me from enjoying the music.  Live, these four musicians seemed to create something greater than the sum of their individual parts.  It’s been said Crazy Horse is the father of grunge, and you can hear that in their sonic walls of guitar sounds, completely loose approach to jamming, heavy chords and the way feedback almost becomes an integral fifth instrument.

The jams are long and powerful:  Young attacks his guitar like he doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing, yet the sounds that come from his black Les Paul indicate otherwise.  In some of the crazier moments, the band members punch out their sounds with both hands striking their instruments, or Neil flapping his shirt tail or his cord against his strings.  Is it music?  I guess that’s subjective.  But it definitely is rock and roll.  And as silly as you, me and a couple of other friends doing that to guitars, basses and drums would look and sound, there’s something about the chaos of Crazy Horse that actually works:  a definite method to the madness, though I doubt any of the guys could explain it.  It’s playing from gut instinct, and, at least for this film, the instincts seem to be right. 

The concert footage, which is mostly taken from 1996 but also has stretches of older footage from both 1986 and 1976, is intercut with some behind-the-scenes stuff:  glimpses of the band on their bus, or backstage, plus a rather sterile series of interviews conducted with each member sitting in the same chair and shot at the same angle.  I would have preferred more music and less talk, but some of the anecdotes are amusing enough.  I enjoyed one scene where Neil was chewing out one of the guys backstage, and one on the bus where they argue over harmony parts.  They sing a few notes.  “It sounds good,” Neil affirms.  No, it doesn’t.  Nobody in the band is that good a singer, including Neil…but that’s part of what makes the Crazy Horse sound.

Jim Jarmusch, one of America’s leading names in independent cinema, admits in one of the interviews that he sort of plopped down in the middle of Crazy Horse to make this film.  He’s a fan of the music, which would explain his interest in the project, but a film of this nature is the kind that almost always ends up controlling the director, rather than vice versa.  It’s not a particularly cohesive or coherent movie, and one gets the sense that even Jarmusch himself was flying by the seat of his pants as much as the band members do when they jam.  He’s managed to preserve some great music on film, but there’s really not much beyond that to really merit the label “A Jim Jarmusch Film”.  Still, one can appreciate the freedom he had to follow the band, and to be on stage and back stage with his cameras:  the overall look may be that of a bootleg recording, but it certainly got closer and offered more flair.

It’s funny, but I’m beginning to notice a strange trend in my take on concert films.  I love Led Zeppelin, but I’ve never liked The Song Remains the Same.  I love Pink Floyd, but I didn’t care for The Wall.  Yet I’ve never liked Neil Young, but I enjoyed Year of the Horse.  If I can figure out a reason for this trend of reverse correlation, I’ll get back to you with it.

Video **1/2

This is a difficult category to rate…the original film was shot on shoddy equipment, using Super 8 and 16 millimeter, and the resulting visual look is a total grainy, washy mess…but is that the fault of the transfer?  No.  The most detailed and attentive transfer in the history of the medium couldn’t have made a good looking picture out of this:  it just wasn’t meant to look good.  It’s a case of a visual style reflecting the subject matter, and if the music of Crazy Horse is undisciplined and slovenly, this film gives us the visual equivalent.  Some shots have contrast so high that grain is an understatement for what it produces…rather, the image looks like an eye test where the doctor will ask you if you can see a picture amongst the big black and white dots.  Being a concert film, lighting and colors often take on extreme hues:  natural is not the desired effect, nor is it achieved.  I didn’t notice anything about the disc that I would fault the transfer for…I would have liked anamorphic enhancement, but in reality, that’s almost neither here nor there with this film.  I didn’t note anything I would attribute to compression.  Still, even though it’s the film that looks bad and not the disc, two and a half stars is the most my conscience will afford me to offer.

Audio ***1/2

The tagline coaxes “crank it up!”, and this is a good DVD to do just that.  The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix (DTS also included) is a loud, raucous rock and roll mix that brings the dynamics, the noise, and the energy to vivid life.  There is even a bit of subtle but effective discretion to the rear stage, including crowd responses, echoes, and bits of feedback.  The combination of both stages during the concert footage make for a very realistic live representation.  In the quieter moments, the dialogue is always clean and clear, even when the band members tend to talk over one another.  All in all, a quality mix of some good live rock and roll.

Features **1/2

In addition to the trailer, the disc contains two 20-plus minute interview segments:  one with Neil Young and Jim Jarmusch, and one with the other members of Crazy Horse.  Both are informative, if low-key, and interesting enough.  The disc also contains some DVD ROM extras, and upcoming looks at two other USA films, Traffic and Where the Money Is.  The menus also feature film footage with sound.

Summary:

It’s safe to say that Year of the Horse won’t be everyone’s cup of tea…I assume if you’re a Neil Young fan, you’ll like it, but I’m not, and I still enjoyed it.  I think lovers of good rock and roll in general will find at least the music in the film to their liking.  If nothing else, Jim Jarmusch captured some magical concert moments where a rag tag bunch of motley musicians made a joyful noise amongst walls of distorted guitars and feedback.  Crank it up?  You bet!