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TV Review: PBS American Masters: Neil Young – Don’t Be Denied

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If you are willing to sit through those ten-minute breaks for their fundraising pitches, some of the best historical rock and roll programming you'll find anywhere on television can regularly be seen on one of the least likely channels you might imagine.

The Public Broadcasting Network (PBS) has in fact been running some pretty great stuff lately, including portions of the Eric Clapton/Steve Winwood concert found on the recent Live From Madison Square Garden DVD, and the Last Days Of The Fillmore documentary. But the network may have just topped itself with the latest installment of the long-running American Masters series — a brand new documentary on Neil Young.

Neil Young – Don't Be Denied (which begins airing on PBS stations on June 10 — check local listings) traces the often idiosyncratic but always iconic career path of the rock legend. It begins with his roots in Winnipeg, Canada, and continues through his stints with Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and Crazy Horse, before winding up with his infamous antiwar themed Living With War album and the subsequent Freedom Of Speech tour with CSN&Y in 2006.

Along the way, the filmmakers miss a few key periods — no mention is made of the 1989 comeback album Freedom for example — but they manage to catch a whole lot more. Much of this comes by way of a generous amount of footage taken from the artist's own private collection (much of which, one would have to assume, is also included in the just released career-spanning Archives boxed set). There are also interviews with insiders like Crosby, Stills & Nash, Nils Lofgren, James Taylor, and of course Neil himself.

In interviews with former members of Neil's first band the Squires, they describe the young band's sound as "surf rock instrumentals." Neil then proves this point by playing an original Squires 45 that sounds like something straight out of Shadows territory. "We were better too," Neil's one-time bandmate concludes.

Neil also describes the days when the band hauled their equipment around in an old hearse. "It was made for us," he says, "it had rollers in the back, so you could roll the amps in and out." In another rarely seen clip from Neil's experimental film Human Highway, he jams with Devo on an early version of what eventually became the song "My My, Hey Hey (Into The Black)."

The film also serves as a career examination of Neil Young, through both his commercial peaks (Harvest, Rust Never Sleeps) and more experimental lows (Trans, Everybody"s Rocking). What emerges from this is a portrait of an artist who simply refuses to compromise his artistic muse, even when it means damaging personal relationships or confounding both his record company and his fans.

"I only care about the music," Neil Young explains at one point. "It's sad, because sometimes people get damaged by it."

Neil Young – Don't Be Denied is about as personal and eye-opening a look into the career of this legendary artist as any I've ever seen. Produced for PBS American Masters series by THIRTEEN and and directed by Ben Whalley, it premieres on PBS stations on June 10. Check local listings.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • tink

    I was looking forward to this before reading your review and had already set it up on the DVR. Now, I’m drooling for it to record.

    Interesting to me that you make mention of the hearse from Neil’s early days. I was reading something just a day or so ago about it as well. Seems the vehicle made it down to California when Neil made his trip. According to what I’d read, Steven Stills recognized it while driving down the Sunset Strip one day and turned around to catch up with him. Word has that incident being instrumental in Neil joining Buffalo Springfield.

    Thanks for the thumbs up on just how cool this program is!

  • Bliffle

    PBS has many very good live programs of popular and rock music. It seems to have become a speciality of PBS. Usually the sound and video are vastly superior to what you would hear and see on the commercial channels.

    Around here we call him “Mister Young”, in respect of his very generous contributions of valuable lands to the Open Space District.

  • rainbow

    according to the program guide, this special was scheduled to air on Wednesday evening June 10. But it was not on. The PBS web page that night said it was CANCELLED, not postponed, CANCELLED. Anyone from the California Bay Area able to see the show that night? any idea what happened?