Back in the Saddle Again

Year of the Horse
Lagoon Cinema, starts Friday

ALL THE HELLRAISING noise of this hell of a film goes out on a prayer. Neil Young performs his solo acoustic "Music Arcade" while the end credits roll. It is, in its solitude, a near-holy song, one that Young sings on the verge of whispers. He comes around, again and again, to the words "That's how good I felt," which can remind you of all the rock & roll joy you've just seen and heard, witnessing Crazy Horse hang out and reminisce and--I mean this in every sense of the word--play. But there are other lines that jump out of "Music Arcade" that viewers might consider. "I was walking down Main Street," Young murmurs, "Not the sidewalk, but Main Street." And with that little joke, the limits of language come crashing into question: Describing things, including 30-year art collectives, can be so unspecific--and so much fun.

One of the more adorable bits in this frankly adorable film comes when Crazy Horse guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro turns the interview tables on director Jim Jarmusch. Sampedro rolls his eyes at the idea that a few feet of film can even hint at what his three decades of music-making means to him and his bandmates. He teases Jarmusch, accusing him of gathering "some artsy stuff to use in some artsy film to make everybody think he's cool."

Well, isn't that just the beatnik calling the beret black? There isn't a group alive that's artsier than Crazy Horse. Their art is high-modernist, white-square-on-a-white-canvas, art-for-art's-sake pure. When guitarists Young and Sampedro, bassist Billy Talbot, and drummer Ralph Molina fall into one of those famous grooves, they don't just, as Sampedro says, sound like "one big guitar," they sound--period. Noise is the entire point.

Noise, like laughter, can be subversive. This film has plenty of both, portraying the band members as good-humored good eggs, still pretty thrilled with the idea that they get to be together and spend their nights engaged in a process that is technically called "messing around." It can't be an accident that the first concert footage is of "F@!#in Up." Dressed in clothes as rumpled as their sound, the three guitar players in this black-and-white segment are shown bobbing up and down like some mangled cuckoo clock. Neil asks, "Why do I keep fuckin' up?" And the band repeats, in giddy unison, "Keep fuckin' up!" not as a question, but as a command.

Jarmusch, whose previous films breathe mostly ironic, hipster air, allows himself actual sentiment here. He doesn't even edit out his geekiest outbursts. He actually says stuff like, "It must be pretty heavy to be in Crazy Horse," which is just so dumb that Mr. New York Cool comes off as sort of respectful and cute. This is his most loving movie yet, alternating backstage shenanigans and onstage labor with sometimes poignant interviews. "Proudly shot in Super 8," his wonderfully impetuous visuals correspond with the band's crusty texture, letting long passages of clamor unfold under abstract pictures of roads and clouds and sky. This isn't the work of an auteur--it's a fan letter. Is the visual aesthetic or the pace of the story compelling enough to stand on its own for the viewer who doesn't care about the band? Nope. Because the movie's so plugged in to the music, you can't have one without the other. With the possible exception of Canadian sports enthusiasts looking for a peek at Neil's Toronto Sun sportswriter dad Scott, if you're not crazy for Crazy Horse, stay away.

Me, I confess to fandom. I know it's a movie, but every time they finished a song, I felt a bodily need to clap. And while I can pinpoint certain little things like the vocal harmonies on "Tonight's the Night," or that daring chaotic prelude to "Like a Hurricane" that fuel my adoration, I can't get started on a full disclosure of why. I don't know if the members of Crazy Horse are magicians or swindlers or what, but their trick is to take everything abhorrent--guy-stuff talk of "brotherhood," bottomless instrumental jams, and the annoying tendency to just keep on keeping on year after endless year--into something unpretentious and hilarious and smart.

Maybe the answer's in Neil Young's eyes when he's talking up his bandmates, calling Billy "the center," saying that Ralph makes him laugh and that when Poncho's there "everything's strong." Maybe it's the way that the guitarists gravitate toward each other onstage, trying to get close. Maybe you can find it in the caress of Jarmusch's camera. Maybe it's just plain fondness. Jarmusch has said that he doesn't call this a concert film; he calls it a "rock & roll movie." But you know what it is really? A date movie: The sweetest little love story of the year.

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