Year of the Horse is a 1997 concert film following a tour by Neil Young and Crazy Horse directed by indie icon Jim Jarmusch, probably best known for Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and Broken Flowers. How could it not be unique?
Filmed ‘proudly’ in Super 8, 16mm and Hi-8 video, Jarmusch attempts to show the truth behind the band – how they get along, how they play together and the thirty years of history behind them. The film mixes footage of Neil Young and Crazy Horse from various different times with original concert footage from the 1996 tour.
All of this seems fairly conventional and the film’s opening minutes don’t do anything spectacular – there is a cringingly square lift of the famous opening intertitle from Scorsese’s The Last Waltz exhorting the viewer to play the film loud, footage of the band on stage and old footage of them charmingly setting a decorative arrangement of flowers on fire in what looks like a small hotel room and then complaining to the maid because they didn’t expect the blaze to get as big as it does. However, it’s not long before things get a little more Meta. Guitarist Frank ‘Poncho’ Sampedro challenges Jarmusch, wondering how one filmmaker, and an artsy-fartsy one at that, can possibly contain all of what Neil Young and Crazy Horse means in one little movie and a few snappy questions. Sampedro likes this theme and will repeat this same idea throughout the film, but it seems that Jarmusch does too. As a result, Year of the Horse becomes an attempt to capture the essence of the band, their camaraderie and their music in a unique and innovative way.
So it is probably best to read Year of the Horse as an experiment by a trendy filmmaker stuck with a cumbersome format – the concert film. When there isn’t an inadvertent distillation of a historical or cultural moment (the Summer of Love and Woodstock in the otherwise tedious near-four hour Woodstock or the symbolic death of the previous in the haunting Gimme Shelter - not to mention the actual death accidentally caught on camera), there isn’t really much reason to watch a concert film. They bring across neither the feeling of being at a concert nor even the quality of the music played. Nor are they visually interesting since few people go to concerts for the visuals alone. Film is a versatile medium but, I suspect, the concert film is a stretch too far. So what can Jim Jarmusch do, caught as he is with an unrewarding cinematic style and a mass of important information to get across with only an apparently paltry 106 minutes to do it in?
Someone, I forget who, says during an interview that the Crazy Horse sound is elusive and, when it is there, it is as if all four musicians are playing as one. The music takes over for a golden moment, the musicians merely existing through their instruments rather than performing. Jim Jarmusch seems to be trying to capture this miracle of synchronicity, loading the film with long passages in which Neil Young, Frank Sampedro and Billy Talbot endlessly improvise, their guitars squealing and screeching. The film runs through ten songs from the 1996 tour and in each we see long drawn-out riffs, which may or may not represent that one sound. After a while though it all sounds the same.
When he’s not doing that, Jarmusch shows us scenes of the band when they are not playing on stage, often unplanned, seemingly improvised sequences to which the band members talk or argue or mess around. These include the aforementioned sequence in which they set some fake flowers on fire but also a scene in which they all get high and another in which they fight about ‘parts’ or ‘sets’ or something. Sampedro lounges in his hotel room, watching Robocop 3 on TV and then complains about this film’s inability to capture what Crazy Horse is. Soon Young calls, asking for help with his computer that he hasn’t yet worked out how to use. Then Jarmusch reads some nasty passages from the Old Testament to a rather dumb Young. Jarmusch is attempting to film the band with their guard down, to capture their being and not just the performance, since years of experience is revealed through tiny moments, not floods of information. Fair enough, but the finished film is a messy assemblage of unrelated bits and pieces, falling way short of profundity but hitting the mark with pretension, becoming a dull and rather unlikeable portrait.
A late experiment, cutting between old and new footage of the band playing “Like A Hurricane”, shows that Jarmusch was trying to do something interesting, but ultimately the film represents more about Crazy Horse and life on tour than Sampedro would probably have been happy with. The film sort of captures the tediousness of life on tour and the egos that will inevitably clash when thrown together for long periods of time. Individually, the band members talk about their great friendship and onstage chemistry but together they just seem to get on each other’s nerves. Just as Young has been singing “Like A Hurricane” throughout the long years and each song played here has a long, indistinguishable guitar riff, life in a rock band can be tiring and repetitive.