A Neil Young trait that has shaped his longevity is his wide range of tastes. From his teenage years fronting the Winnipeg-based band The Squires to his latest solo sojourns, Young has been a sponge who has absorbed diverse musical styles and genres in his process of creating new music that has almost always been of his own making, rarely derivative or squeezing out material which mimics his influences. That’s the basic premise and focus for director Alex Westbrook’s two-hour, unauthorized, direct-to-DVD documentary film, Neil Young’s Music Box: Here We Are in the Years. Viewers get an exhaustive – and at times tiresome – examination of Young’s inspirations, from early rock’n’roll (Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison) to folk and country (Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan) and right up to the 1990s grunge rock movement.
As with almost anything put out by UK outfit Sexy Intellectual and their parent company, Chrome Dreams (which only coincidentally shares a name with an unreleased Young album that has been heavily bootlegged), Neil Young’s Music Box: Here We Are in the Years features very little material from the main subject and quite a lot from a plethora of talking heads, including but not limited to music journalists and biographers. Either due to shoddy editing or more likely copyright protection, Young’s music is almost entirely absent, found mostly in just quick clips from live appearances, movie projects, and television performances.
Despite Young’s non-participation, there is some interesting information and trivia to discover. Early in the DVD, which runs chronologically through Young’s career, viewers can find an interesting tidbit concerning Orbison and how his songs’ melodramatic and emotional undertow affected Young’s future work, in particular in what manner Orbison’s “It’s Over” shaped Young’s fragile and gentle “Birds,” from Young’s 1970 masterpiece, After the Gold Rush (Reprise). Another tidbit: George Harrison was the Beatle which had the strongest impact on Young. One interview subject suggests Young’s “When You Dance You Can Really Love” (also from After the Gold Rush) has a guitar tone and melancholia similar to Harrison’s best Beatles-era tunes.
Westbrook belabors how instrumental rock artists such as The Fireballs and The Shadows encouraged Young’s formation of The Squires, who were initially in the same mold as The Fireballs. Westbrook includes an obligatory interview with former Squires drummer Ken Smyth, who credibly relates The Squires’ 1962 formation and imitative sound. But then the DVD takes one of several unnecessarily lengthy divergences to explain the importance of instrumental rock music, with extended interviews with The Fireballs’ guitarist George Tomsco, who pointedly has no connection whatsoever with Young.
There is not much time spent on Buffalo Springfield, the band that first brought Neil Young to prominence, although there is mention of how much The Rolling Stones stimulated Young’s burgeoning songwriting, in particular how his composition “Mr. Soul” broadly borrows from The Stones’ “Satisfaction.” The Jagger/Richards partnership later exerted more force on Young, which is indicated effectively by a side-by-side melodic comparison between Young’s “Borrowed Tune” (released on Tonight’s the Night, 1975) and The Stones’ “Lady Jane.” How Young was never sued for copyright infringement is a mystery.
When the film shifts to Young’s solo releases, the proceedings pick up a bit, in particular how the Canadian and British folk movements impacted Young’s songwriting. Bert Jansch and Ian & Sylvia were as much a part of Young’s folk-tinted compositions as Bob Dylan, and Young’s folk-rock ambitions bloomed when Young met his future Buffalo Springfield (and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) compatriot Stephen Stills. But again, Westbrook makes another unneeded digression as he lets multi-instrumentalist Chris Darrow (Kaleidoscope, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) explain how folk-rock came to exist. His history fills in the blanks, so to speak, but Darrow had no musical relationship with Young.
Neil Young’s Music Box: Here We Are in the Years finishes up with chapters on the punk and new wave era, as well as the 1990s grunge period. From the 1970s to the early 1980s, Young was drawn to the energy, irreverence, and puncturing of pretentiousness offered by The Sex Pistols, Devo (whom Young invited to co-star in his 1982 apocalyptic comedy movie, Human Highway), and Kraftwerk. The music pundits overstate how much Kraftwerk’s synth-driven pop ventures may have instigated Young’s move to electro-pop on Trans (Geffen, 1982) and the film’s over-extended examination of Kraftwerk adds little to understanding the creation of Young’s songs, such as “Computer Age” and “Transformer Man.” The documentary concludes with resurgence and loss. Several Seattle bands lumped into the grunge genre acknowledged Young as an icon, which led to Young’s collaborations with Pearl Jam: Young’s Mirror Ball (Reprise/Epic, 1995) and Pearl Jam’s EP Merkin Ball (Epic, 1995). Sadly there is the linkage with Kurt Cobain’s death, when Cobain’s suicide note quoted Young’s famous line, “It’s better to burn out ‘cause rust never sleeps,” from Young’s “My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue)” (from Rust Never Sleeps, Reprise, 1979). Although Young and Cobain were not friends, Westbrook’s film implies that Young was emotionally affected by the loss of yet another young musician.
The DVD extras are minor and include a seven-minute extended Ken Smyth interview where he explains the birth and break-up of the short-lived Squires (Young was more committed to music as a career than the other young men in the band). There are also textual biographies of the interview subjects, such as music scribes Anthony DeCurtis and Richie Unterberger and Young biographers Nigel Williamson and Johnny Rogan.
Neil Young’s Music Box: Here We Are in the Years proves over and over again that Young is a repository of music, which is an acceptable point to attest. But unfortunately the DVD’s various detours and the lack of Young’s involvement keeps this project from being much more than a curiosity, not to mention that reading a couple of Young biographies would suffice just as well.