Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Films of Jim Jarmusch: Year of the Horse (1997)

Year of the Horse (1997)
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch.
Featuring: Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

In 1995-96, Jim Jarmusch and Neil Young collaborated on two films together. The first was Jarmusch’s Dead Man – one of his best films, and features a haunting, guitar driven score by Young. The second was Year of the Horse, a documentary about Young and his long time band Crazy Horse – which is perhaps the worst film Jarmusch has ever directed. Jarmusch had never made a documentary before, and it shows in his interviewing skills – as he gets almost nothing of any value from Young, the other members of the band or anyone else he interviews. He even keeps not one, not two, but three different instances of the guitar player basically saying that no outsider can possibly come in and document what 30 years together is really like. By the third time he says it, it feels like a confession on Jarmusch’s part – he really doesn’t capture what being together that long is like.

The movie is made up mostly of concert footage shot in 1996 – along with new interviews – shot, it appears, in someone’s dingy laundry room for reasons I do not understand as well as footage from previous tours in 1986 and 1976. The old footage, presented without context, really doesn’t add anything to the movie – except to show you how much Young and everyone else has aged over the 20 years the footage spans. The one exception could be a scene where Young is angry because the other members screwed up the arrangement on stage that night (we do not see footage of that, of course) – which hints at the more complex relationship Young and this band actually has, that Jarmusch was unable to capture. There is a reason that Young continues to come back and record and tour with Crazy Horse  -it seems like it recharges their batteries. They have a sound that is described throughout the movie as “raw” and their concerts basically look like jam sessions. Yet there is also a reason why Young often records his best music with others and not Crazy Horse – and why he has at times started recording with Crazy Horse, and then re-recorded everything with other musicians. The members of Crazy Horse admit there are a lot better musicians out there then they are – and Young knows it as well. You’ll hear a lot of songs in Year of the Horse – and none of them are among the best of Young’s long career. Young can go on all he likes about his while everyone else’s jacket says “Neil Young and Crazy Horse”, while his just says Crazy Horse – but they really are Neil Young and Crazy Horse. The other band members are not on Young’s level – and they all know it. Any bitterness, resentment or anger there may be is left off-screen, which is disappointing.

Basically, the interviews are shallow and superficial. They offer no real insight into what makes this band work as well as they do, or what has kept them together. Either Jarmusch lacked the skills to get the band to be introspective, or else they didn’t want to go there and Jarmusch didn’t push. You aren’t really going to learn much from them.

But this is, more than anything, a concert documentary – so who cares about the interviews as long as the music is great, right? That would be true, except the music in Year of the Horse isn’t all that good. I’m a Neil Young fan – and I loved Jonathan Demme’s Heart of Gold – another Young concert doc from a few years ago. Yet in Year of the Horse, the songs go on forever. Basically the band sings the first verse and the chorus of each song, and then the whole thing quickly devolves into minute after minute of what would charitably described as a “jam session” – that is mainly wordless, with guitar that provide more feedback than anything else. It doesn’t help that Jarmusch decided to shoot on Super 8 (and “Proudly”, the opening credits inform us) – which I suppose was an attempt to make the film look as “raw” as the band – but basically has the effect of making everything look dingy, grimy and dirty – and also hurts the sound quality. I don’t think shooting on any type of film would have saved some of the songs – that drone on and on and on for what seems like forever (I think a few hit 10 minutes) – but it couldn’t possibly have hurt.

Some directors are naturals when they move over the documentary films from a long career in features. Martin Scorsese has been able to make several great docs – and two great concert films as well. Spike Lee has been able to cross that line as well. As Year of the Horse is still the only documentary and concert film on Jarmusch’s resume, the evidence so far suggests he is not one of those directors. Apparently he’s working on a documentary about The Stooges. Hopefully he learned some lessons from Year of the Horse, and that film will be better than this one. But if I learn nothing else from that other than that Iggy Popp’s jacket just said The Stooges, and everyone else’s jacket says Iggy Popp & the Stooges, I’ll be disappointed.

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