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Queenston resident shoots Grammy-nominated music film

Filmmaker and visual artist Adam C.K. Vollick’s work on Neil Young’s most recent full-length film is up for a 2023 Grammy Award.

Filmmaker and visual artist Adam C.K. Vollick’s work on Neil Young’s most recent full-length film is up for a 2023 Grammy Award. 

The Queenston resident, who has had a creative relationship with the legendary Canadian-born singer-songwriter for more than a decade, was director of photography for A Band A Brotherhood A Barn. Released in December 2021, the 74-minute film documents Young and his long-time band Crazy Horse recording his 41st album, Barn

The nomination in the Best Music Film category took Vollick by surprise. 

“I got a text from Daryl (actor Hannah, Young’s wife and director of the documentary) saying we were nominated,” Vollick says. “I haven’t kept track of how many views it’s had on YouTube. I’m really honoured that, however the nomination came to be, we got noticed for it. A lot of heart and soul went into the making of it, and it’s kind of a homespun production.”

Homespun it most certainly is, shot in and around a rebuilt rustic barn on Young and Hannah’s Colorado ranch. The sparse beauty of the mountain-top landscape is accentuated via Vollick’s use of time-lapse techniques and wide, sweeping shots. And the many images of the barn exterior itself, set against that vast beauty, illuminate the isolation of band and crew from the hustle and bustle of city life. 

“It was a stagecoach stop when America was in its infancy,” Vollick explains of the Colorado location. “It’s no small feat to get all that equipment and all those people up a mountain. The mobile recording studio they used is a lead-lined truck. It probably weighs 60,000 pounds. And then to put those guys in that building.”

The barn itself is built in a log cabin style. A crew had just finished reconstructing the building on the footprint where it originally stood as many as 150 years ago. Logs were cut and positioned into place, and Vollick says the whole structure had to sit and settle for at least a year before the cracks and crevices between them could be sealed. 

Those crevices provided some unique visual opportunities for the 42-year-old filmmaker. Shards of sunlight shine into the barn providing a unique natural light show as Young, guitarist Nils Lofgren, bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina work out the album’s 10 songs along with producer Niko Bolas. 

“We knew that we wanted to shoot some performances at a specific time of day,” he says. “There was a narrow window of about a half hour when the sun was on its way down where it came through the cracks and illuminated the stage. We got lucky, the stars aligned, pun intended.”

Vollick’s method for A Band A Brotherhood A Barn was the same as it was when he shot Young’s 2019 film Mountaintop, which documents his Colorado album that year. He shot everything and anything, even capturing a moment when Young relieves himself outside of the barn. Shot from behind, of course.

“They trust a lot in me to not miss anything,” he explains. “The first mission was to make sure I got everything that happened in the studio. Neil doesn’t really subscribe to any kind of schedule. You don’t know when he’s going to show up or when he’s going to play music, but you better be ready. I was always on.”

Vollick’s cameras were perpetually rolling. He set up wide shots of the performance space, allowing him to capture some magic moments, such as when Lofgren escaped to the piano after dinner to plunk out a melody, and the rest of the band gathered around to join in.

And he couldn’t resist the many time-lapse sequences of stars shining, water flowing and clouds rolling in the Colorado sky.

Hannah “knows when I’m up there I’m fascinated by the nature of the place,” Vollick says. “So they know that I’m going to do that, too. I hand it all in, then the production team takes everything that I shot, line it up against the documentary audio that I recorded. They watch every second and then pull things that are beautiful. It’s a sculptural process with Daryl and the editors.”

It’s the way Young likes it, too. As Vollick says, the 77-year-old goes by the mantra, “it’s better to be looking at it than looking for it.”

A previous extended collaboration between Vollick and musician-producer Daniel Lanois, formerly of Hamilton, was what led to his work with Young. A chance encounter with the man who helped the likes of Peter Gabriel, U2 and Bob Dylan create some of their best work, resulted in him becoming Lanois’ in-house photographer and video artist. Vollick’s first feature-length film was Here Is What Is, a document of the recording of the French-Canadian’s 2007 album of the same name.

When Lanois was brought in to produce Young’s 2010 solo album Le Noise, the veteran rocker insisted that Vollick come along with his gear. He co-directed the film of the recording sessions and has been working with Young and Hannah ever since.

A Band A Brotherhood A Barn was a family affair, not just for Young and Hannah, by the way, but also for Vollick and his wife Jess Rice. The former Nashville restaurant owner worked as a chef for the band and crew during the Colorado sessions. At the time, Rice was seven months pregnant with the couple’s daughter, Velvet. 

The film had a very small theatrical release before being posted in its entirety on the video-sharing website. It’s been seen by more than 857,000 people in less than 12 months. 

In the Best Music Film category, it’s up against films featuring Adele, Billie Eilish, Justin Bieber and Spanish pop-start Rosalía, as well as one called Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story

“We’re in good company,” Vollick says. “There’s a lot of really cool projects on that list. I have to watch them. I’m going to make a point to watch them all for my own education and inspiration.”

Perhaps some of that education and inspiration will show up in his future work. Vollick is busy doing post-production on a combination concert film and documentary about drummer Brian Blades’ father. He’s almost finished work on a music video, partially shot at Camp Cataract in Niagara Falls, for local jazz singer Sarah Jerrom. And he’s set to start production on a documentary about Young’s beloved long-time manager, the late Elliot Roberts. 

And of course, he’ll be busy taking lots of video and photographs of Velvet, now 14 months old.

Because Grammy Awards for the category are usually bestowed only upon the artist, director and producer, Vollick isn’t sure he’ll end up with a golden gramophone statue or get to go to the 2023 awards show in Los Angeles on Feb. 5. 

But he’s proud to have been a big part of the creative process that led to the finished product. 

“Just to be nominated is fantastic,” Vollick concludes. 

Adam Vollick (left, with the camera) and all four band members on stage, including Neil Young on guitar on the right, and technical guys offstage. (Photo supplied)