Bastards of Young

Neil Young’s Greendale is a Shakey attempt at a folk-rock allegory

Neil Young has called his latest album, Greendale, a “musical
novel.” His film Greendale, then, would be a “musical literary
adaptation,” I guess, although it’s really a lip-synched drama
set to bluesy, folky rock, taking place in a world imagined in 10 songs. Neil
Young has a few roles in the film: as cinematographer, as director Bernard
Shakey, editor Toshi Onuki and a brief on-camera appearance as Wayne Newton.
Plus, of course, he wrote all the songs that he and his band Crazy Horse
perform throughout the film, characters occasionally mouthing the words.
Chapters named after the song titles open with the camera panning over a
hand-drawn schematic of the town, then zeroing in on a sketched locale, which
morphs into a real place. Greendale is mapped around the three generations of
the Green family—Grandpa and Grandma Green (Ben and Elizabeth Keith),
Earl and Edith Green (James Mazzeo, Pegi Young), Sun Green (Sarah White) and
Cousin Jed (Eric Johnson)—and set mostly on Edith’s and
Earl’s “Double E Rancho” on the outskirts of town. The
Greens are a quasi-Midwest family, all folksy and earth-loving, who live near
the West Coast. Earl is an artist, while Sun Green becomes a protester and
environmental activist. Grandpa mock-sings about how “a little love and
affection/in everything you do/will make the world a better place/with or
without you.” But when Jed, the black sheep of the family, shoots a cop
who pulls him over for speeding, the Greens’ world begins to fracture.
Young strains to create an allegory between the Greens’ experiences and
post-9/11 events in the U.S., but the odd mix of right-wing anti-government
rhetoric and hippie ideology quickly becomes muddled. Sun Green’s
condemnation of “Powerco” comments on corporate America’s
many recent scandals, while Young’s lyrics on “Leave the
Driving” chastise the Bush administration: “Leave the driving to
us/and we’ll be watching you/no matter what you do/and you can do your
part/by watching others too.” But the survivalist Jed is confusingly
merged with a Devil figure, while a chapter involving Earl in a motel is too
strange to work, and the paintings in the film are never tied into
Young’s wider concerns. The female figures, save for Sun, are weakly
drawn. And the FBI is portrayed as such a bunch of low-down baddies that one
agent shoots a cat while another plants a bag of weed in a suspect’s
bedroom. By the end of the film, when the cast all gathers to sing “Be
the Rain,” Young’s parable has fallen back on timeworn ’90s
enviro-pieties: “Mother Earth has many enemies/There’s much work
to be done”; “Save the planet for another day.” Right from
the opening shots of a white picket fence and an American flag to sunlight
trying to break through grey clouds, Young spells out his message. As
unsubtle as his dictums become, the grit and grain of the Super-8 film images
often create a textured visual accompaniment to the music. A short, elegiac
song describing Grandma Green bringing dinner in from town to her husband,
unaware of the tragedy that’s unfolded at the ranch, is shot with an
air of hovering sadness. When Sun dances while her parents are out, the house
flickers and glows with rays of electric light. And while Young’s film
falters as a socio-political fable, it’s worth seeing if you like the
man’s music. The 10 songs are heart-pumping, foot-thumping rock
numbers—particularly “Falling From Above,”
“Devil’s Sidewalk” and “Sun Green”—driven
by pounding percussion and grinding guitar. Even the naïve closing
anthem beats out a resonant tune even as it hammers home Young’s
laboured point. At a time when the visuals in so many movies drown out weak
storytelling and flailing dialogue, Neil Young’s made an oddity:
Greendale is a film better heard than seen. V Greendale Written and directed
by Neil Young • Starring Sarah White, Eric Johnson and Ben Keith •
Zeidler Hall, The Citadel • Fri-Mon, Apr 23-26 (7pm) • Metro Cinema
• 425-9212

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