Published on May 14th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
Year of the Horse 
Summary: Talented director Jim Jarmusch slaps together a band-on-the-road doc that ends up as little more than nearly 2 hours of his famous buddies jacking around on home video.
R | 106 min.
Director: Jim Jarmusch | Editor: Jay Rabinowitz
Studio: USA Home Entertainment
A bunch of guys filming each other standing around getting stoned and acting like assholes on low-quality video has worked before, just look at MTV’s Jackass. What separates that 14-year-old franchise from Year of the Horse is that Johnny Knoxville and his bros were endearing, giggling and having a blast while they did it.
Neil Young has never been afraid of hopping in front of a camera and performing, but in the case of this 1997 flick, he would have been better served to just say no. Director Jim Jarmusch is an icon of minimalist indie cinema, directing solid pictures like 1984’s Stranger than Paradise and 2005’s Broken Flowers, but his foray into the rock-doc subgenre takes that no frills style to a new level.
I’ve seen better production values in some of the clips of middle-aged dads getting hit in the pills on America’s Funniest Home Videos than in Year of the Horse. Shot mostly in Super 8 and Hi-8 video, this movie feels unplanned from the start with only a few highlights sprinkled throughout the mind-numbing experience.
Production values are one thing but what disappointed me the most about this film was the complete lack of questioning–and insight–into what should have been an interesting subject. Year of the Horse centers on Young’s off-and-on career with his backing band Crazy Horse. With the release of their 2012 disc Psychadelic Pill, the foursome had spent over 40 years touring and recording together, yet Jarmusch wastes a great opportunity to give us a deeper look into this group of eccentrics.
What kills Year of the Horse is the style of questioning Jarmusch uses on the band members, which put simply is nonexistent. It’s obvious that the director is pals with Young because we see them joking around together on the tour bus but it feels like that only hinders the project. Here’s a group of guys that have been writing iconic songs together for decades, constantly defying the record business and the deepest insight we can get is when bassist Billy Talbot looks into camera and says, “This is how you smoke a joint,” before toking up. Fascinating.
The other guys in the band, including Young, come off as a group of grumpy old men in the film. Guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro especially seems like a complete jerk-off, constantly busting Jarmusch’s balls as he tries to ask him questions off-camera. In one exchange, Poncho calls him a “New York artsy/fartsy film producer,” saying there’s no way he can encompass the inner-workings of the band in just a series of interviews and live performances.
When you watch a documentary about one of your favorite music acts you hope for one of two things: To learn some new, revealing morsels about them or to enjoy getting to “hangout” with your heroes. I got neither from Year of the Horse, instead it made me not want to have anything to do with these guys away from their albums. We do get some interesting fly-on-the-wall moments backstage as the guys rehearse, showing the audience how tense small disagreements and mistakes can get when you spend enough time with a group of people.
Year of the Horse finally becomes more than shallow posturing and put-on rock and roll attitude when the guys begin talking about Crazy Horse’s late guitarist Danny Whitten. Jarmusch asks Young about stealing the band from their previous act Danny & The Miracles, to which Neil seems to show some deep-seeded guilt. Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina show the film’s only honest emotion when isolated for questioning about Whitten, talking about their old friend.
The film’s format is typical of music documentaries, switching between interview footage and on-stage performances but a couple variables make Year of the Horse different. For the interview segments, Jarmusch alternates between clips from the mid-70s and new chats in 1997, charting that relatively little has changed among this group during that time. It’s also different because the live performance clips are of Zapbruder-esque quality.
The entire documentary is meant to look and sound as unkempt as these four aging punks’ personalities. The shots aren’t framed well, often with the band members being partially cut off or completely out of focus. Year of the Horse definitely doesn’t look like it was produced the same year Titanic hit theaters–aesthetically it has more in common with Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.
What salvages this film a modicum of viewing value are the attitude-laden tunes the band performs, including a few from their grunge era resurgence. If you’re like me and keep Neil Young and Crazy Horse records like Zuma and Ragged Glory close to heart, you’ll be jacked to hear cuts like “Fuckin’ Up” and “Barstool Blues” played with the energy of a high school garage rock outfit. I absolutely love the tracks these guys have written together and maybe that fed into my disappointment in Year of the Horse more than if it were a film about The Bloodhound Gang. To me, how could any movie that features Crazy Horse jamming “Like a Hurricane” not be a magnum opus by default?
In one early scene, Pancho, again not showing Jarmusch an ounce of respect, asks the director, “What are you gonna do, lob questions at us and sum up 30 years of insanity?” Actually, he may have been on to something there.