Neil Young’s influence on rock music over the last near-forty years is almost incalculable. One of his generation’s finest songwriters, Young is also the model for integrity, taking artistic gambles with almost every project he commits himself to. One could make a claim that he helped create the rock context for folk/country music and vice versa, not just through his groundbreaking work with Buffalo Springfield and his incredible musical oeuvre from the 1970’s, but also with much of his output in the late 1980’s and 1990’s.
However, like some of the other still-relevant rock musicians of his generation (Tom Waits and Lou Reed, to name a couple), he has found himself in a groove where he creates music that is admirable, but breaks little to no new ground. His recent album Greendale is no exception. A “musical novel” as Young terms it (the rise of the MP3 helped put the lid on the coffin of the tired “concept album”), Greendale is about three generations of the Green family and how they come to terms with copkilling, media intrusion, and environmentalism, whether by incarceration, rebellion, or death.
Featuring the rhythm section of his longtime backing band Crazy Horse, and taking cues from Young’s “Ambulance Blues” and “Crime in the City,” Greendale is comprised of ten narrative-driven epics. Unlike those singular examples, however, Greendale is a full eighty-minutes’ worth of songs comprised mainly of weary exposition and a convoluted plot concerning already plodded-over lyrical terrain (the insensitive media, saving Mother Earth, etc.).
Fortunately, Young also conceived Greendale as a feature-length movie, and what we have is an iconoclastic home movie that is charming, baffling, and intriguing. Even when it seems on the verge of falling apart, it is still nothing less than fascinating.
Shot mainly in Super 8 by Neil Young (under the nom de plume Bernard Shakey), the movie focuses on the two young members of the Green family, cousin Jed who guns down a cop, and granddaughter Sun, who becomes an environmentalist a la Julia Butterfly (who is name-checked in the film).
In the case of the recent swinger/beatnik feature Seven Year Zig-Zag, the viewer has to get over the hurdle that the entire movie is narrated in rhyme in order to get through it. Like that film, it becomes evident after ten minutes that, yes, the entire movie will feature the actors lip-synching along to Neil Young’s vocals. And most surprisingly, it works, whether Grandpa is singing about the importance of love and affection, a widow is berating her dead policeman husband, or an old fisherman is importing words of wisdom to his young sea-traveling companions. The actors, comprised mainly of Young’s musical and household personnel, immediate family, and locals from his town, have a raw effectiveness, even when it seems like they’re on the verge of cracking up.
In contrast to the overly earnest music, in the movie, Young accentuates the artifice of the project: characters always seem to be dancing, contrived newspaper headlines are obviously pasted on top of pre-existing headlines, some of the actors seem a little too young for their characters. The Super 8 cinematography has a pastoral, soothing quality, and when the film occasionally cuts to faux-news briefs shot in video, the effect is jarring. This is undoubtedly intentional: the media is the one of the major bad guys of the movie, along with the decadent individuals who are guilty of artist exploitation, the U.S. government (the war in Iraq and the War on Terror are referred to directly), and the devil.
Might one be more likely to pop in the DVD of the movie as often as one would the CD of Greendale? Probably not. But it should be noted, the CD doesn’t contain a dancing devil in a red hipster suit, a post-modern bar band version of Crazy Horse, and Neil Young making a cameo appearance as Wayne Newton(?!).
Also contained on the DVD is the documentary “Making of Greendale,” which is worth a look, if only to see Young and co-cinemtographer Larry maintain the existence of the whip-cracking director Bernard Shakey. Almost all the actors from the film are interviewed, who discuss Greendale with a mix of confusion and positivity. And keep an eye out for Neil Young’s gargantuan collection of baseball caps.