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"Year of the Horse"

By Michael Henningsen

NOVEMBER 3, 1997:  To be fair, it must be stated early on that anyone who is not a fan--and I mean a huge fan--of Neil Young will be monumentally annoyed by director Jim (Dead Man) Jarmusch's pseudo-documentary of the man, his band and their music. Year of the Horse depicts the band live, in spontaneous rehearsal settings and during heated backstage moments that feature Young, drummer Ralph Molina, bassist Billy Talbot and guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro basically telling each other to fuck off in quintessential rock star form. Filmed in super-8, 16-millimeter and high-8 formats, Jarmusch's film includes footage of Young and Crazy Horse in action at various points in their 28-year history with each other. The film presents candid interviews with each band member, various members of the Crazy Horse tech crew and Young's father. Not a single segment, though, is particularly telling and, in that sense, the film fails as a paint-by-numbers documentary. Little emphasis is given to the historical timeline that has seen Crazy Horse through any number of ups, downs and sabbaticals--a point made three times during interview segments with Sampedro who asserts himself as the seasoned, ultimate "band guy" by taking verbal jabs at Jarmusch. "You think you can come in here with a couple of cute little questions," he says to the director behind the camera, "and get what it's all about. You think you can make some artsy fartsy film that will make people think you're cool, but you can't get anything with your two questions."

The rest of the band's members--especially the soft-spoken but intense Molina--are more forthcoming. Although most of the questions are never quite verbalized throughout the film, the most important insight revealed is that the enigmatic Crazy Horse "sound" is the culmination of nearly three decades of the four members' various liaisons. The individual interviews are like hearing brothers describe each other: There's never any clear delineation between the members of Crazy Horse. And their working relationship is either the most graphic example of codependency or the most explicit testament to rock band solidarity known to man. They all go on at length about the collective and how Crazy Horse wouldn't be possible without the elements that each member brings to the table. Young describes his bandmates as though they were disciples: Molina the quiet, insightful observer; Talbot the grounded backbone, and Sampedro the strength and energy. How, exactly, Young fits into the group is left to remain an unspoken mystery, but it is here that Jarmusch steps in and becomes crucial to the success of his film. By simply editing in concert footage, Jarmusch is able to make it quite clear that Neil Young is the catalyst that causes Crazy Horse to roar into its glory. It's not what he plays so much as how passionately he plays it. An awkward, uncomfortable bandleader off stage, he becomes the band's pilot light when the lights go down, and they use his energy to fuel their own.

Year of the Horse is far less a biographical look at Neil Young and Crazy Horse than it is a tribute to the band by Jarmusch who is quite obviously a fan. And no one needs to tell you how painful that can be. For the non- or casual Neil Young fan, Year of the Horse is equivalent to being forced to take part in a 107-minute slide show presented by annoying in-laws, documenting their 1976 Disneyland vacation. But for the rest of us, the film is a unique glimpse of Crazy Horse doing their best Crazy Horse impersonation. "Who do you think you are, God?" asks Jarmusch of Young during one of the film's most entertaining and enlightening segments. And although no one replies, it is apparent by the stark grandeur that pervades the film that if Neil Young doesn't think he's God, he's among the very few.

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