About Entertainment – Magazine – Private singer
About Entertainment – Magazine –
Neil Young reveals the highs and lows of his five-decade musical career in a new BBC documentary this weekend.
Producer Ben Whalley describes how he secured a rare interview with the man himself.
Young’s albums include Rust Never Sleeps and Harvest
Each production comes with its own challenges. With this film the big issue was simple but daunting: getting to Neil Young.
The Canadian songsmith has a reputation for being fiercely private; he seldom appears on camera and almost never looks back.
The unlikely starting point for this project was New York’s Upper East Side.
It was October, 2007 and Young was doing a small handful of interviews for his new album, Chrome Dreams II, at a swanky hotel.
My boss and executive producer, Mark Cooper, had snagged an afternoon on camera in Neil’s diary. But would he be prepared to discuss anything other than his latest project?
When the music is finished with me, I’ll be back… If they can wait for me
We found him to be in an expansive and generous mood, happy to talk about everything from his formative years in Winnipeg to his acquaintance with Charles Manson.
“He wasn’t what you call a songwriter he was more like a song spewer, but he got turned down by record companies,” Young said of the mass murderer.
“I told Mo Ostin at Reprise that this guy’s good, just a little out of control. But when he got turned down that really annoyed him.”
Turning his famously intense stare to camera Neil deadpanned, “he didn’t take rejection well”.
It was an amazing start, but now we wanted more.
Holding out for a hero
Time passed, other programmes were made, and it wasn’t until spring 2008 that I was properly able to turn my attention to the project.
I had a production team and a schedule – the only thing I needed was Neil.
As I tried to get more time with him, assistant producer Rachel Williams lined up loads of interesting and original stuff to film.
The star addressed critics who wanted him to repeat his most famous album, Harvest
However, without more from the man himself I was unwilling to push go.
The project became a balancing act as, with the help of production executive Stephania Minici, we constantly rejigged the schedule, holding out for our star.
In the meantime we all kept busy. Archivist Jeannie Clark sourced some great footage, including film of Neil on his ranch, whilst we interviewed Thom Yorke, Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle.
Although these interviews don’t feature in the film, they and can be seen at www.bbc.co.uk/neilyoung, along with other exclusive content.
Finally, the call we had been waiting for came through. Arrangements were made and off we dashed to California.
The omens looked good as we filmed with key collaborators Crosby, Stills and Nash in Los Angeles.
Then, suddenly, it was all off again. Things had changed, and our filming date was no longer good… but there was the possibility of arranging something the following week.
Undaunted, we arranged a whirlwind trip to Winnipeg, Neil’s childhood home.
Get Back To The Country
Me (left) with Neil Young and executive producer Marc Cooper
Slap bang in the middle of Canada, Winnipeg is a long way from LA. Surrounded by endless prairieland, it has an edge of the world feel.
Travelling so extensively allowed me to indulge my passion for 8mm film and gave cameraman Ric Clark the chance to film some gorgeous landscapes – when he wasn’t clocking up thousands of miles behind the wheel.
On a gruelling turnaround, we filmed with members of Young’s first band, The Squires, before back heading to San Francisco with Neil in our sights.
This time it happened, and it was well worth the wait. Neil turned up with an entourage of one – Carl, his labradoodle.
On home territory, Young was gregarious and forthcoming. Discussing his most famous album, Harvest, Neil suddenly bristled with intensity: “‘Something to avoid repeating’ is how I looked at it.
“I could probably make another one but I’d probably hate myself for it. So I followed it up by making a record nobody wanted. People thought I had failed, but I succeeded”.
Young began his career with Buffalo Springfield
Intoning each word deliberately, he poked his vitamin water at me: “I wasn’t dragged down by the success”.
The more time we spent filming, the more apparent it became just how driven the Harvest Moon singer is.
“I only care about the music [long stare]. It’s sad. Sometimes people are damaged by it, but if people understand me, they can understand what that is – that, when the music is finished with me, I’ll be back… If they can wait for me.”
When we finally cut the programme together, I was ecstatic. I had a coup; this was world exclusive material. I knew we had a film now and couldn’t wait to put it together.
After another ‘short’ diversion, this time to Arizona to talk to Nils Lofgren, we drove 400 miles to Los Angeles and jumped straight on to a 10-hour overnight flight back to London.
The next six weeks I spent cutting the material with editor Bradley Richards who gave it the benefit of an aesthete’s eye whilst Neil’s production company supplied us with some fantastic performance footage – some of it unseen.
The overall result is a portrait of an artist in his own words. It is about Neil’s relentless pursuit of musical inspiration to the exclusion of everything and everybody else.
As Neil says, sometimes people are damaged by his refusal to compromise, but I think he emerges nobler for his unswerving honesty.
Neil Young: Don’t Be Denied can be seen on BBC Four at 2200GMT on Friday, 31 October.