A time machine back to 1972
Cian Kinsella
16:16 6th December 2022

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Neil Young attracted a lot of attention at the beginning of 2022 for writing an open letter in which he accused Spotify of presenting ‘grossly unfactual information’ – this was in reference to an episode of Joe Rogan’s podcast that aired on 31 December last year. He subsequently removed almost all of his music from the platform; his infamy grows, but far fewer are his streams. Purchasing or otherwise accessing his music is quite a big ask for a listenership who want convenience and integration with the platform.

Harvest Time, shown in cinemas almost exclusively on 1 December, is a documentary aiming to tell the story of the recording of 1972’s seminal Harvest through archival footage. Some of the videos were shot during recording breaks, others are taken from actual rehearsals, others still are just incidentally from that time. It is two hours long and free from narration, thus allowing Young and the recordings to tell their own story without intrusion.

The problem is that Harvest Time lacks direction: not enough of the footage is compelling enough to tell a story. Similarly to how members of a fandom will indiscriminately hoard ephemera associated with their obsession, much of the footage’s value lies only in its coincidence with Harvest. Two hours is a long time to watch disparate videos loosely based around an album’s recording without a convincing indication of a Why? being answered. For example, the first quarter of the film is largely concerned with the minutiae of writing and recording ‘Alabama’ (banger, btw), which became boring quite quickly.

The upshot of Harvest Time’s aimlessness is that it excellently cultivates a ‘vibe’ for lack of a better term. The music, the outfits, the mannerisms, the grain – aesthetically, it is hard to beat. No combination of vintage filters, Pinterest boards, or TikTok guides (Ranchwave/Barncore, anyone?) would be able to replicate the ennui of some very cool rock people recording a very good album. The naturalism and banality of it all makes it feel like this is not what we were supposed to see.

One scene that sticks out is about half an hour in, with Young reclining on the ground. ‘I don’t know what I want’, he says. The cameraman asks, ‘How do you find out?’, to which Young responds, ‘I don’t know until I hear it.’ Playing around with some dry grass, he looks more stumped and confused than visionary and driven. Any creative would relate to that. In another, he is being interviewed by a very young but disconcertingly confident and articulate Gil Gilliam.

The film is interspersed throughout with performances of the songs from Harvest, and right at the very end, we get some of its two biggest hits: ‘Heart of Gold’ and ‘Old Man’. The footage is great, and there’s a real sense of arrival – the question, though, is where are we arriving? It was a crescendo without a build up: nothing that preceded it felt like it was going anywhere.

For the Neil Young superfans, Harvest Time is well worth a watch for a truly intimate experience. The aesthetic and atmosphere transport you to a very specific moment in time. But without a guiding hand, more judicious editing, and a sense of narrative, it doesn’t justify its length. The access it grants to Neil Young in the early 70s is unique, but rather like pulling back the curtain to find that the Wizard of Oz is just a man: a bit underwhelming. 

Grab your copy of the Gigwise print magazine here.

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