Rock iconoclast Young returns to the director's chair with exquisitely grungy results. Visualization of his current record, pic follows small-town folk in the titular burg whose simple way of life is giving way to a more complex reality. Pic will be embraced in theatrical by musician's strong fan base, and will keep on rockin' in ancillary via a multimedia blitz.
Rock iconoclast Neil Young returns to the director’s chair (under his occasional nom de cinema Bernard Shakey) with exquisitely grungy results in “Greendale.” A visualization of the 10-song story cycle on his current record of the same name, pic follows small-town folk in the titular burg whose simple way of life is giving way to a more complex reality. Sublimely pointed in its idealistic simplicity yet willfully scruffy in presentation — much like the enduring Young’s best music –pic will be embraced in theatrical by musician’s strong fan base, and will keep on rockin’ in ancillary via a multimedia blitz.
On the front porch of his farmhouse, aw-shucks patriarch Arius J. “Grandpa” Green (Ben Keith) espouses a life with “a little love and affection in everything you do.” Meanwhile, Grandpa’s son Earl (James Mazzeo) paints vivid canvases and drives around trying to sell them. When cousin Jed (Eric Johnson) goes to jail for killing policeman Carmichael (Paul Supplee), Grandpa succumbs to his grief and the pressure of the media. This inspires his granddaughter Sun Green (Sarah White) to social protest.
Through it all dances the Devil (Johnson again), who gloats over the passing of the old ways. Things come to a head during the climactic set piece “Be the Rain,” which captures the high school drama club-look of Young’s currently touring stage extravaganza of the material.
Shot on small-town coastal California locations in grainy Super 8 (blown up to even grainier 35mm), the visual strategy behind the pic harnesses Young’s unique and time-tested brand of musical and emotional primitivism.
Employing his friends, family and crew as actors, rocker visualizes the simplistic story arcs of the songs as they’re played in CD order, identified by title cards using the hand-drawn, town map motif borrowed from the CD art and stitched together aurally by natural ambient sounds.
Rhythmically lip-synching Young’s singing when the lyrics are in the form of dialogue (his backing band Crazy Horse doesn’t appear), cast displays all the improvisational exuberance and familial charm of a home movie. Idealistic vibe — government interference bad! Small-town activism good! — benefits enormously from the tension between the deliberate amateurishness of the images and the crystalline production of the music (which has itself been criticized for a droning sameness, but in fact contains haunting melodies and keenly-observed imagery).
Distinguished pedal steel guitarist and long-time collaborator and crony Ben Keith is a natural as Grandpa, while White — a friend of Young’s daughter first seen by him at the high school pageant that inspired pic’s visual motif — has the right look of youthful defiance. Johnson is fine as the mournful Jed but distractingly antic as the Devil (pic’s most puerile character), and artist Mazzeo is bracingly self-conscious as Earl.
“Greendale” is Young’s fourth feature as director, following 1972’s “Journey to the Past,” 1982’s “Human Highway” (both as Shakey) and the 1979 concert pic “Rust Never Sleeps” (pal Jim Jarmusch made 1997 concert docu “Year of the Horse”). Helmer himself can be glimpsed twice, as Shakey playing a slick, black-clad character named Wayne Newton, and scurrying about with a Super 8 camera during the anthemic finale.