Our Rating: 4.00
Considered in its entirety, Neil Young's Greendale project is a story strangely told. The eccentric rock opera is worthy of the adaptive rebel; it was developed and released in phases, much of it directed by Internet activity. The soundtrack officially arrived in 2003, followed by live tours with a cast of actors, and the launch of a website, www.newyoung.com, full of discovery and downloads. (He doesn't care if you take it for free. "MP3 quality sucks," Young told Wired. "If they want quality, they can purchase a DVD-A.") The movie finally debuted earlier this year at the Toronto Film Festival, and the response has been mixed.
Shot in Super 8 and blown up to 35 mm, the film - produced by Shakey Pictures, presided over by Bernard Shakey, one of Young's aliases - has a gritty, '70s feel that matches its loose jams. Young's folksy, storytelling lyrics are suspended in 10 hard-driving songs: grungy, stomp-down rockers delivered in steady Crazy Horse style. Nothing fancy. All of the song structures feature Young in storytelling mode, so his is the only voice you hear. The footage of the title town, the countryside and the dramatis personae sometimes appears abstract, lost in grainy, overblown details. Sometimes the characters are in sync mouthing the same words that Young is singing. For all its rough components, the result is as fluid and beguiling as the film's omnipotent character, a red-suited devil whose carefree, dancing steps never lose time.
The fictitious story follows a family in a small Pacific Coast town called Greendale, and what happens when Jed - Grandpa and Grandma's son, and the uncle to granddaughter Sun - kills a cop and goes to jail. It's a broken-heart-of-America type of tale, about real people and real tragedies that must be endured no matter a judgment of right or wrong. Still, an anti-exploitation message plays through Young's spare and striking poetry. His words are the strength of Greendale:
"The moral of this story/ is try not to get too old/ the more time you spend on earth/ the more you see unfold // and as an afterthought/ this must, too, be told/ some people have taken pure bullshit/ and turned it into gold," Grandpa tells us in "Leave the Driving to Us."
For those who have never understood or tolerated Neil Young, to sit through 87 minutes of his personal invention would likely be akin to torture (or at least fraternity initiation). But if Young's music or essential intrigue - at any stage of his rich, 30-plus years of unpredictable expression - have ever entertained your imagination, Greendale will likely yield a fun field trip into the mystery of his evergreen mind.
(Opens Friday, June 18, at D.MAC, the Downtown Media Arts Center)