In 1979 Neil Young released the LP Rust Never Sleeps and the double live LP Live Rust. Later that same year, the movie Rust Never Sleeps, basically the visual record of the second recording, was also released. July 1 2016 saw a Blu-ray version of Rust Never Sleeps, complete with remastered sound, released by Warner Brothers Records.
For the record, I saw the original movie when it was released in theatres back in 1979. However, given the years that have passed since, and my state of mind when seeing it, I don’t think my memories are reliable enough to make any comparisons between the two. What I can say is I had forgotten the remarkable experience the movie had been. Not only was it far more sophisticated than most concert movies of the time, it also contained a number of theatrical elements not normally seen in a straight ahead rock concert from that era.
At this point in his career Young and his band Crazy Horse (Frank Sampedro guitar & vocals, Billy Talbot bass & vocal, and Ralph Molina drums & vocals) were a seamless unit who could match any rock and roll band note for note and riff for riff. Listening to them now one can’t help but hear why every grunge rocker who came along in the late-’80s early-’90s owes a huge debt to this ensemble. They grind through songs with an intensity and a power that can be a little overwhelming. However, they, unlike many imitators, also know how to pull back and understand the impact a moment of silence can have on a song.
The movie opens much as the audience in the concert hall would have experienced the event. We’re treated to the site of Young’s stage crew dressed as Jawas, complete with glowing red eyes, setting up. This involves raising tarps to reveal oversized touring crates and erecting a gigantic microphone stand (a la the flag at Iwo Jima) to the sounds of Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” from Woodstock and The Beatles’ “A Day In A Life”.
The last to be revealed is Young himself curled up asleep on top of one of the boxes. He then proceeds to perform a solo acoustic set starting with “Sugar Mountain” and “I’m A Child” while standing on the box. As he performs you realize the songs have been chosen deliberately to show the progression in his music. He travels from the youth and innocence of those early tunes to the person who has been tempered by life’s joys and sadness in songs like “After The Gold Rush”.
After he finishes his acoustic set, he lays down to sleep in a giant sleeping bag centre stage and the Jawas begin to set up the stage for the full band accompanied by stage announcements from the Woodstock Arts and Music Festival being played over the P.A. system. Once everything is set, Young and Crazy Horse proceed into a set featuring some of his most well-known songs from the 1970s and excerpts from the recently released Rust Never Sleeps LP.
While the majority of this set is electric he interjects two acoustic numbers, “The Needle and the Damage Done” and “Lotta Love”, as a change of pace. The second half of the movie follows along the lines of a more typical concert film from the time period as its mainly shots of the band playing. However, there are a few surprises along the way which prevent it from becoming monotonous.
As the movie was originally shot in the low-light atmosphere of a concert hall on film, there’s not much even a digital transfer onto Blu-ray can do about the graininess of the image quality. However, the audio transfer is far better than one would have expected. The sound is so clear you can even hear the shuffling of the Jawas’ feet as they move around the stage during the set-up periods.
When it was released theatrically Rust Never Sleeps was considered to be something of a breakthrough in the genre of concert films. Not only was it more than just head-on footage of the artist performing, there was also a semblance of a narrative. Never satisfied with doing the same thing over and over again musically, Young took this opportunity to tinker with a rather staid format and managed to make it more exciting.
Compared to the concert films that came after it in the 1980s, Rust Never Sleeps looks rather primitive. However, given the limits the technology of the day imposed upon him, Young and his people created something which still manages to stand the test of time.