It’s 50 years since Warner-Reprise issued Neil Young’s celebrated 1972 album Harvest. It reached Number 1 in five countries, selling over five million copies, while topping both America’s Billboard and Cashbox charts. There were always rumours that Young had filmed the making-of his album, but it was presumed to be missing or lost. Yet suddenly, out of nowhere, the said film surfaced, and was being promoted in December 2022 to coincide with the issue of Harvest’s 50th Anniversary Boxed Set.
In 2023 we will have a plethora of ‘Rock Docs’ available on Blu-ray, download, streaming, and BBC TV. Therefore a weary reception for yet another Rock Doc could be forgiven in certain quarters. This genre of filmmaking came of age long ago, and is now quite reductive. Such documentaries are often made as very conventional films, using formulaic TV formats, aimed mostly at fans.
Rock journalists stroke their beards of wisdom to repeat this well-worn mantra, “It had to be one of the greatest albums of all time.” The audience yawn loudly, while on-camera record producers fiddle with their faders, listening to retrieved master tapes. Maybe they’ll isolate a bass line of ‘note’. Self-congratulatory producers spiel on as bored viewers rush for their handsets. Meanwhile, freezing diehard fans put on their Anoraks, and sympathetically beard stroke, while Pavlov’s dog ‘paws for thought’ in anticipation of yet another retro Rock Doc.
Has Neil Young made an unconventional Rock Documentary?
Thankfully there are no music journalists offering retrospective opinions here, nor a voice-over as narration. Instead, we’re back on track to 1971 fly-on-the-wall style. Harvest Time deftly leads the audience into ‘A Journey Through The Past‘, following Young into his various haunts from February till September 1971. All filmed when Apollo 14 ‘s astronauts walked on the moon, while The Vietnam War raged-on, during the last days of President Richard Milhous Nixon.
Harvest Time sees the outside world excluded. No Apollo. No Nam. No Nixon.
Young’s realm of creativity
The camera looks down towards a barn situated in the middle of a valley surrounded by sunlit California farmland. Inside the barn, five hippies play some magnificent music. The familiar bars of Alabama ring out in an embryonic form. A removal truck full of clutter is parked nearby. The legendary Wally Heider Mobile Studio, the only portable multi-track studio in early 1971.
High on a hilltop a microphone sits tall on a stand. Wally Heider and producer Elliot Mazer play-out the recordings from the back of their big truck. “Digging the echo in the Hills, man”, smiles Young.
The band had formed only three days prior to this session. It was their first trip to California from Nashville with producer Mazer. Young met them all in Nashville, while guesting on The Johnny Cash TV Show (unseen in the film). Young named them The Stray Gators, possibly due to their stoner-banter, which is so-laid back they’re almost horizontal.
It’s as if we’d wandered into an outtake reel of a Cheech & Chong movie.
Is Young ‘Cheech’ or is he ‘Chong’?
A radio interviewer certainly shows Young to be affable and amusing. This is furthered by a visit to Mazer’s Nashville studio. Here a precocious nine-year-old sits behind a reception desk. He brags to The Stray Gators, saying he’d already taped an earlier interview with Ringo Starr. Young suggests that the boy could interview him. So he does! Young is neither patronising nor sarcastic. His sincerity unfolds. He explains why his other band, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, aren’t touring. Next up? Graham Nash is seen in a studio singing Words in three-part harmony with Stephen Stills, and Neil Young.
A transatlantic trip takes Young, his girlfriend, his manager, and their producer to London’s Barking. No ‘Mad Dogs’ were in evidence, but many ‘Englishmen’ appeared. Known to the world as the London Symphony Orchestra, they’re seen playing in accompaniment to the melodic A Man Needs A Maid, which was unofficially dedicated to Young’s then girlfriend, the Hollywood actress Carrie Snodgress. The said score is captured alongside an irksome take of There’s A World. The LSO and the conductor both seemed to struggle to perform in time to Young’s piano, before realising that they were, in fact, a beat ahead of Young.
Period charm ensues as The LSO queues up for Young’s autograph. “It’s for my son!” admitted the lead violinist.
Documentary director Young has captured his very own magic here. Perhaps this is his version of the Beatles Get Back? Harvest Time is most certainly a time capsule seen through the looking glass, peering back into the hallowed days of Dylan’s Forever Young. All shot during the last vestiges of the ‘Peace & Love’ era.
Harvest’s 1972 release saw the song Heart Of Gold reach Number 1 in America’s singles charts. It would prove to be Young’s only US Number 1 hit single. It’s possibly his most enduring song, and certainly one of his best.
Harvest Time is currently screening on Amazon Prime. Harvest’s 50th Anniversary Boxed Set is issued through Warner-Reprise.
Ennio the feature film documentary is ‘the overlooked documentary’ of 2022. This is the movie story of Italy’s greatest soundtrack composer, Ennio Morricone. It is currently rumoured to be in the running for the BAFTA for ‘Best Documentary Feature of 2022’. Guiseppe Tornatore’s insightful portrait is a true work of art. A touching film of pure unadulterated poetry, where everyone sings Morricone’s praises; from Clint Eastwood to Joan Baez, and Bruce Springsteen, among many others.
Sergio Leone The Italian Who Invented America is an Italian feature film documentary directed by Francesco Zippel. At the beginning, Quentin Tarantino asserts that Leone’s films are, “The birth of Modern Cinema!” Steven Spielberg insists, “Nobody has ever made films like his: before, or since!” Sir Christopher Frayling adds, “How many people turned down The Godfather to (eventually) make the movie that they really really wanted to make?” Namely Once Upon A Time In America as cited in a clipped sequence from David M Thompson’s overlooked BBC TV documentary Sergio Leone & Ennio Morricone (1995). Meanwhile, all of the big guns pay tribute here – Scorsese, Eastwood, Morricone, De Niro – astutely describing the genius of Leone’s films.
Keep an eye out for all of the above documentaries.