By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
In 1985 it's a Judas Priest show, and the crowd it attracts makes the folks in Spin¨al Tap seem restrained: endless parades of shirtless guys drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, extending their middle fingers; others wearing heavy-metal T-shirts, most of which are emblazoned with the Judas Priest logo; young girls dressed as hair-sprayed vixens, all arriving in burned-out vehicles from another decade -- the Chevy Novas, Ford Granadas, and very old Firebirds all blasting the requisite metal tuneage. The kids are ecstatic and more than slightly wasted. They're barely old enough to drive and they know they will never die (with exception to Timmy, who died in a car accident one month before the show and whose friends were given backstage passes by Judas Priest's management).
In 1995 it's a Neil Diamond show and the crowd it attracts could not be more radically different. The crowd is older, restrained if not refined, mostly female, mostly unmarried. (In one scene the filmmaker bravely asks where the husbands are, only to be told in cracklin' glee, "We don't have any!" The one young lady who is hitched admits that her husband stayed home because he wasn't interested, and besides: "It's girls' night out!") They sit in the back of their minivans and sip Diet Cokes, smiling amiably for the camera, good-natured and at times a tad embarrassed about their obsession with Neil Diamond. Most have seen the singer at least twice; many have seen him five to ten times. Mothers drag daughters, daughters drag their little ones. It is an unofficial rite of passage: You must see him at least once, and once you do, you're hooked. They know his songs, though they can't exactly sing them. And they each have a favorite song: "Cracklin' Rosie," "Sweet Caroline," "Cherry Cherry." A few even reach for an obscure gem. And they all seem to like his butt.
This time around the filmmakers stuck around for the end of the show. (Had they attempted to film the Judas Priest concert post-show, the bent mob would've probably broken the camera as a token of their mischievousness.) One woman gives the thumbs down. "Too many new songs." But she's in the minority. The tone is overwhelmingly positive. These ladies would like Neil to know they're available and that he should come visit more often. The film even catches Neil himself in the distance, waving to the fans who wait for him to enter his tour bus before driving off to the next town. Neil waves and nods his head in appreciation. The film tells us: "Neil Diamond delivers!"
Critics, on the other hand, don't care for him much. Neil aligned himself too closely to the pop field, beginning with his early work as a songwriter for acts such as Jay and the Americans and Bobby Vinton, and following through to his most recent release, The Movie Album -- As Time Goes By, a two-disc, twenty-song collection of motion-picture music. Admittedly he shares more than a little show-biz flare with Van Morrison, but where Morrison is often uncomfortable onstage and openly hostile to his audience, Diamond relaxes and plays the field, applying the stage-pro polish that leads him away from R&B into the less critically heralded arena of middle of the road. Levon Helm, drummer for the Band, nailed it in his book This Wheel's on Fire. The Band was filming what was then their final live performance for Martin Scorsese's 1978 film The Last Waltz. Influential blues and rock performers integral to the Band's development were invited: Muddy Waters, Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and since Band guitarist Robbie Robertson was producing him at the time, Neil Diamond. Except, as Levon points out, Diamond didn't fit in. Wearing a bright blue polyester suit and dark shades, Neil looked as if someone had (as Helm relayed it) pushed the band's accountant onstage.
Yet Diamond has sold more than 110 million records and is one of the world's most successful live acts. His performing career has spanned over three decades. His songs are known to us all: "Song Sung Blue," "America," and his duet with Barbra Streisand, "You Don't Bring Me Flowers." He produced his most powerful work in the beginning, a string of nine hits for the Bang label, including "Cherry, Cherry," "Solitary Man," and "I Thank the Lord for the Night Time." They were all solid pop-rock workouts that, considering nonrock performer Billy Joel's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and ol' Neil not even up for consideration, proves there is no justice, only irony. Diamond also penned two Monkees' hits: "I'm a Believer" and "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You." Deep Purple covered his "Kentucky Woman" in 1968.