Directed by Bernard Shakey
All songs written by Neil Young
Performed by Neil Young & Crazy Horse
Due to technological advancements, smaller attention spans and a limited talent pool, today’s music industry is going back to the business model of the ‘50s where singles are the main focus. No one sent that memo to Neil Young or, more likely, he just threw it away because he has just released Greendale, a concept album, or what Neil calls a “musical novel.” He didn’t stop there though. He also filmed a long form video to accompany the music.
The story is about the Green family who live in Greendale, a fictional town in Northern California. We meet Grandpa, who reflects on the problems of the world. He is so aware that he’s even able to comment on the narrator of the story. As Grandpa reads the paper one morning, he tells us that with “a little love and affection\ In everything you do\ Will make the would a better place.” However, life is not as wonderful and rosy as those sentiments indicate. We learn this as we meet the rest of the clan: Earl Green, a frustrated artist, his daughter, Sun, who wants to save the planet and their cousin Jed, who looks a lot like the devil.
The film was shot in Super-8mm and blown up to 35mm so it has an extremely grainy look. It takes a few minutes to get used to, but the music and story are so compelling that the visuals and effects don’t distract as much as they could. It’s like watching the cheap special effects on the wonderfully written, British science fiction program Doctor Who. But then there’s an artistic choice that I felt was a mistake. When the media descend on the Greens home to interview them about Jed’s killing of a police officer, they cut to the POV of a news camera. The picture is crystal clear as if it was shot on HD video. The transition is jarring and really stands out compared to the blurry blown-up Super-8, reminding us how good images can look, before we are left with the blur again. But then the music and story take hold again.
Like all good musicals, which in a sense this film is, it’s the strength of the songs over anything else that makes it work. The songs are very good and their sum is better than the individual parts. Neil has created some interesting stories. He sings the narration and all the character’s parts. The actors lip-synch the songs and Neil creates different personalities with subtle changes in his voice.
The music is the electric rock and roll that we’ve come to expect from Neil Young; he plays a loud, fuzzy guitar that matches the visuals. The amazing power and consistent rhythm of his backing band Crazy Horse strengthens Neil’s singing and playing and allows his guitar to solo yet still stay grounded. I found myself tapping my foot throughout the whole movie.
The message of the story is uplifting and so is the notion that Neil had something positive to say and was willing to share it at a time when most of the culture focuses on negative aspects. I was so impressed by the music and the nobleness of the message that I chose not to download it for free off the Internet and instead bought the CD, although in the interest of full disclosure, the fact that you get a DVD of Neil’s acoustic performance of Greendale is what sealed the deal for me.