Young creates a rock movie classic in 'Greendale'


March 12, 2004


Neil Young's "Greendale" is not an easy film to watch. Directed and largely filmed by the vaunted 58-year-old godfather of grunge on grainy 35mm stock with a constantly bobbing camera -- rarely has a pseudonym been as apt as in the credits for this movie, where Young lists himself as his longtime alter ego, Bernard Shakey -- "Greendale" could be the bane of many an optometrist.

The movie was not shot in 3-D but there are times when you might think it was, and if glasses aren't necessary during the viewing, they might be by the time you leave.

Then there's the problem of Young's storytelling. There is no dialogue, and what slim and rather inscrutable tale exists is carried forward only by the lyrics from the songs of Young's brilliant but sprawling album of the same name with Crazy Horse.

Never a particularly linear songwriter, the plot for this "Our Town"-like tale of a mythical rural American burg and a "typical" family called the Greens pretty much falls apart during the first 20 minutes.

GREENDALE / ***1/2 (Not rated)

Sun Green: Sarah White
Jed Green/Devil: Eric Johnson
Grandpa Green: Ben Keith
Earth Brown: Erik Markegard
Grandma Green: Elizabeth Keith
Earl Green: James Mazzeo
Edith Green: Pegi Young

Shakey Pictures presents a Neil Young film directed by Bernard Shakey. Written by Young. Music by Young, performed by Young and Crazy Horse. No MPAA rating. Running time: 83 minutes.

Typical is in quotes above because, outside of Young's twisted universe, it's probably not correct to use that adjective for any family that includes a beautiful young woman (Sarah White as Sun Green) who becomes an ecoterrorist, a father (James Mazzeo as Earl Green) who sells his soul to the devil to become a successful impressionist painter, and a brother (Eric Johnson as Jed Green) who shoots a cop and doubles in the film as the aforementioned nattily dressed, soft-shoe-steppin' Satan.

Let's not even get into grumpy old Grandpa Green (Young's buddy and sometimes co-producer Ben Keith), who is given to cursing the mass media while spouting poetic/philosophical nuggets such as, "A little love and affection/In everything you do/Will make the world a better place/With or without you."

But these criticisms are minor when you take stock of what Young has accomplished here: "Greendale" is one of the most potent mergers of music and film that rock has ever produced, easily outshining not only Young's earlier directorial/mixed-media efforts (1972's "Journey Through the Past" and 1982's "Human Highway," both notorious dogs), but other epic musical concept films such as Ken Russell's version of "Tommy" by the Who and Alan Parker's vision of "The Wall" by Pink Floyd.

Given Young's famous artistic perversity and dedicated contrarian nature, the more difficult aspects of "Greendale" may well be intentional roadblocks meant to ward off the sort of people he wouldn't want in his audience anyway -- sort of like when he turned to synth-rock circa "Trans," or when he toured with Sonic Youth as an opener.

In the end, what the movie recalls more than anything else is a lost era of rock moviemaking: the time of the vaunted "pot film," which may have lacked narrative structure but rewarded the adventurous viewer and listener (regardless of whether he or she was aided by illicit substances) by creating a world that was distinctly its own.

In other words, it's a helluva groovy trip, man.

Anyone who is willing to submit themselves to Young's vision will begin to see the beauty in his intentionally homely shots of the simple life in northern California, which are perfectly matched to the music's expansive and hallucinatory grooves -- songs such as "Falling from Above," "Devil's Sidewalk," "Bandit" and "Be the Rain," which stand as the finest Young and the best band of his career have produced since 1990's "Ragged Glory."

After seeing the film, the album (not to mention Young's lovably low-budget touring presentation of "Greendale") takes on profound new dimensions. In fact, it becomes impossible to imagine them existing without each other, making the movie a more successful and complete artistic vision than 99 percent of even the most ambitious videos aired on MTV or VH1, where the music is all too often a secondary consideration to attractive eye candy.

Bravo, Neil, for surprising us once again as a musician and as an auteur.

Long may you run in any media that you choose to tackle.