starring Eric Johnson, Ben Keith, Elizabeth Keith, Erik Markegard
written and directed by Neil Young
by Walter Chaw The Wall shot on Super8 and given a decidedly 'green' spin, Neil Young's raw nerve of a semi-experimental/semi-feature length music video Greendale is literal, unabashedly liberal, and saved by its energy, earnestness, and Young's electric song score. Inspired and rejuvenated, like a few of our better artists have been, by 9/11 and George W.'s reign of evil aw-shucksism, Young contributes to the soundtrack for Greendale some of his best music with Crazy Horse since their eclectic album "Sleeps with Angels". In fact, Ralph Molina's work on the skins here is something like a revelation, even when Young's lyrics lag a little in the picture's middle section, an unsuccessful chunk revolving uneasily around a personification of Old Scratch: in that tattoo, banging fulsome in the song cycle's underbelly, is the freshness and vitality that has kept Young current over four decades.
Greendale follows the travails of the Green family. Grandpa is outraged by the reductions of freedoms and intrusion of the media, while son Earl is a struggling painter who gets the devil's specs and Earl's daughter, Sun (Sarah White), is an activist in the Julia Butterfly mold who headlines the film's best song: the rousing, anthemic "Be the Rain," played over a Thornton Wilder set. A cop-killing, a symbolic protest, a haunting vignette in a ratty motor inn all mark the peaks and valleys of the picture, through which runs Young's absolute dedication to his art, whatever the cost.
Young's photography is, like his songs, sometimes resonant and always smart despite lapses into high corn and an unbecoming self-importance. The curious thing about Greendale, however, is that despite the topicality of its issues, the prevailing feeling evoked is one of a sort of sympathetic nostalgia: the feeling that the Sixties are flyblown regardless of what feels like Young's single-handed desire to keep them alive. It's well and good to campaign for the right causes, but the reality of our post-modern age seems more in line with ennui and ironic detachment--maladies of smug superiority that tend to throw what by all rights appears to be genuine conviction into a quaint context. Greendale is on-the-sleeve enough to ultimately prove a little embarrassing.
Still, Young is a compelling enough activist/artist that Greendale, in all its unadorned frankness, should be held as something like an answer to the dangerously slick snuff of The Passion of the Christ. An exercise in cross-media orchestrated by a man of genius and conviction, neither perfect nor gloriously imperfect while walking its uneasy middle ground to the left, Greendale is at the least alive and in favour of liberty. The rareness of that, and many of our contemptuous reactions to it, should give us pause. Originally published: March 12, 2004.