Year of the Horse

Directed by Jim Jarmusch

Music Box, through October 25

By J.R. Jones

About a third of the way into Year of the Horse, the subject rakes the filmmaker over the coals. “It’s this new guy, Jim,” says Crazy Horse guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, grinning at the camera. “He’s coming in here, he thinks he’s gonna lob us a couple of cute questions that’s gonna sum up 30 years of total insanity, of us trying to make music and be humans and have families and live through all our problems and differences and everything else. How can he do that with two little questions? It’s just gonna be some cutesy stuff like he would use in some artsy film to make everybody think he’s cool. It’s not gonna capture anything.” The moment passes with a laugh, but the challenge hangs in the air for the rest of Jim Jarmusch’s 107-minute film about Neil Young and Crazy Horse filmed largely on their 1996 tour.

Since the 60s we’ve been inundated with “rockumentaries,” most of them little more than marketing tools or, at best, concert souvenirs. Only a handful of rock films have uncovered what makes a particular band tick, and in general those tend to be the work of gifted and original filmmakers. Richard Lester’s timing and visual wit were key ingredients in the semifictionalized A Hard Day’s Night, and in Stop Making Sense Jonathan Demme managed to capture the character of each Talking Head without ever leaving the stage. If every great band has a story to tell, every great rock ‘n’ roll movie must nonetheless find the cinematic language and narrative structure to tell it.

Young and Crazy Horse have been through the studio album-live album-concert movie troika twice already, with 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps and 1991’s Weld. But in many respects Year of the Horse most readily calls to mind The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s wonderful film of the Band’s 1976 farewell concert. Like Scorsese, who had just released Taxi Driver, Jarmusch comes to this project after a career-defining film, Dead Man (whose score was written and performed by Young). Young himself made a guest appearance in The Last Waltz, and that film’s line producer, L.A. Johnson, serves as producer and cameraman for Year of the Horse.

But while Scorsese had splendid musical material–a highly emotional show studded with guest stars–his real triumph was documenting, in numerous interviews, the hardscrabble life of a band that had spent 16 years together on the road. Jarmusch uses interviews, as well as contemporary concert performances and documentary footage from 1976 and 1986, to construct a similar biography of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, who’ve been playing together on and off since 1969 and whose current lineup dates back to 1974. But in the end, though Year of the Horse is more inventive than most rock films, Sampedro turns out to be right.

Dead Man, an antiwestern that explores Native American spirituality, must have presented Jarmusch as an ideal candidate to tell the story of Young and Crazy Horse. In fact, Young’s music for the film reveals a stylistic similarity between him and Jarmusch, albeit one that has less to do with Native American culture per se than with making a virtue of emptiness. In Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law Jarmusch’s use of repetition, static shots, and long, uncomfortable pauses helped define his singular sense of existential comedy. Young and Crazy Horse stretch bone-simple songs to epic lengths, generating hypnotically arid (or, depending on your taste, interminably dull) musical vistas–most of the songs in Year of the Horse run between 8 and 13 minutes. Young’s score for Dead Man works as one piece of music, echoing through the film, as endless as the opening shots of the protagonist sitting still as a train pulls him farther and farther into the moral chaos of the Old West.

But the prospect of letting the band unspool its tunes without any visual distraction must have given Jarmusch cold feet, because the eight songs in Year of the Horse are tarted up with all manner of film-school gimmickry. “F*!#in’ Up” is intercut with 1976 black-and-white footage of the band terrorizing a convenience store and bassist Billy Talbot getting frisked by the police. “Barstool Blues” accompanies familiar images of roadies setting up gear. “Big Time” cuts to a brief animated sequence done with painted pinwheels and black ink, which then gives way to a moving landscape of tents erected outside a venue. For “Slip Away” Jarmusch superimposes clouds and trees shot from a car window. It’s the least imaginative of the film’s montages, yet he uses it again later.

Jarmusch shows greater ingenuity in mixing Super-8 and 16-millimeter film and Hi-8 video throughout the performances. “We used Super-8 partly because the small cameras allowed us to easily shoot by ourselves, without a crew,” Jarmusch explains in the production notes, “but mostly…because we love the way it looks–the raw beauty of the material somehow corresponds to the particular quality of the Horse’s music.” Blown up to 35-millimeter, the Super-8 footage does have a reductive power, especially in combination with the colorful stage lighting. And by cutting back and forth from one stock to another Jarmusch finds a brilliant visual equivalent for the band’s ragged glory. But this aesthetic decision also distances us from the players: their hands and faces are often blurry or obscured altogether, and despite the flexibility of the cameras, Jarmusch and Johnson record much of the performance in long shots from limited angles. It’s a far cry from the sleek and incisive camera work that takes us onstage with the Band in The Last Waltz.

To further complicate Jarmusch’s job, Young and Crazy Horse have a far longer and darker history than the Band did back in ’76. Original guitarist Danny Whitten died of a heroin overdose in 1972, Young’s friend and roadie Bruce Berry ODed the next year, and in 1995 cancer took Young’s longtime producer David Briggs. With this sort of water under the bridge, Jarmusch’s interviews are more compelling than most of what happens onstage. Drummer Ralph Molina hesitantly describes how incapacitated Whitten was, how the rest of the band let Molina decide what to do with him. Molina felt he had no choice but to fire Whitten, and after Young tried without success to get him to contribute to Harvest, Whitten died.

Sampedro, who eventually replaced the guitarist, drops his joker’s mask long enough to provide a moving but understated coda. “When I first joined the band I was doing heroin and a lot of dope myself,” he says. “And probably having a job and making the money I have and having the success I have helped me along the road to quitting all that stuff. They kind of lost one guy and saved another guy.” Producer Briggs was also Young’s closest friend, and his death left a huge void in the band. “We’ve learned to communicate more because of the fact that he’s not with us any longer,” Talbot explains, “and we’ve had to, all of us, step up.” According to Young, a dying Briggs told him, “All you have to do now is get closer to the source. Keep getting purer and purer.” That year, Briggs declared, would be the year of the Horse.

Jarmusch responds to these painful events in two distinct sequences, which despite certain merits illustrate the gulf between filmmaker and subject. The first is during a 13-minute rendition of “Tonight’s the Night,” the song Young wrote about Bruce Berry’s death. In the song’s chilling lyric, tonight is the night Berry leaves this earth; in the film, intercut with shots of a theater marquee and fans lining up, it’s trivialized as the night of the big rock show. The second response comes later, in Jarmusch’s only onscreen appearance. Sitting at the back of a tour bus, he gives Young a hilariously deadpan lesson on the Old Testament, explaining that God keeps trying to exterminate mankind because they turned out to be “fuckups.” After listening to Jarmusch read a particularly vengeful verse from Ezekiel, Young recalls, “I planted a bunch of trees, and I thought they were gonna be one way, and then they turned out to be not the way I wanted them, and I chopped them all down.” Jarmusch laughs, and says, “Who do you think you are–God?” Though by pop-culture standards it’s a priceless scene, it seems imposed on a story Jarmusch should really have let unfold on its own.

Without question, Neil Young and Crazy Horse are dinosaurs: they prove it every time they hit the stage, banging out their ancient garage rock. But in the days of record divorce rates and caller ID, the appeal of four friends creating together for almost a quarter century transcends any musical fashion. “It’s more than a sound,” explains manager Elliot Roberts. “What they bring to the table when they show up is literally their lives with Neil. We’ve been through everything with them.” Yet the shared history that generates such sound and feeling can’t help but repel outsiders, making the band an even tougher nut to crack. Jarmusch can be excused for painting his own pictures on the opaque surfaces; his Year of the Horse is still a colorful and engaging chapter in the story of Crazy Horse. But the book remains to be written.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jim Jarmusch, Neil Young photo by Mike Hashimoto.