Young wrote this for the Jonathan Demme movie Philadelphia
, starring Tom Hanks as a lawyer dying of AIDS. Demme first cut the title sequence of Philadelphia
to "Southern Man
" and asked Young to write a song like it for the movie. Young gave him this, which he used at the end of the film. Still needing a song for the open, he called Bruce Springsteen, who wrote "Streets Of Philadelphia
." Demme wanted musicians not typically associated with AIDS causes for his movie because he wanted a mainstream audience to take interest in the film.
Demme spoke further about getting Neil Young to compose a song for the film in a Rolling Stone
interview: "I thought, what we need is the most up-to-the-minute, guitar-dominated American-rock anthem about injustice to start the movie off. Who can do that? Neil Young can do that. So we edited a title sequence to 'Southern Man' to help him see how his music could power the images we were working with. He said, 'I'll try.' Six weeks later, 'Hi, it's Neil, I'm sending a tape.' So in comes this song. We were crying the first time we heard it. I went: "Oh, my God, Neil Young trusts this movie more than I do."
The melancholic nature of Young's contribution led to Demme switching it to the ending, rather than opening, song.