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Amazingly, Neal Young, the founding father of grunge and familiar face on the rock and roll scene for nearly 40 years, has tossed his sun-worn hat into the narrative ring with 2003's Greendale. As a musical offering from the enigmatic melody maker and his backing band Crazy Horse, this weighty, lonesome and sentimental song cycle has some stellar elements. In reality, Young was so pleased with the pictures painted with his words and music that he decided to accompany the CD's release with a movie. Having had some previous practice behind the camera (with such cinematic strangeness as 1972's Journey Through the Past and 82's Human Highway) Young's Greendale, new to DVD from Sanctuary Records, does indeed visualize the aural elements he envisioned effectively. But there are parts of this journey that are nearly fatal to its ability to amuse.
In the town of Greendale, California, the Green family is having a very rough time. While running drugs up and down the coast, Cousin Jed shot and killed a local policeman named Carmichael with the resulting publicity creating a circus-like chaos around the close-knit clan. Grandpa and Grandma have had to leave their home and move in with their son Earl, his wife Earth and their dreamer daughter Sun on the Double E Ranch. Earl is an artist who can't seem to get the local gallery to support his work. Its owner, the enigmatic Lenore, favors more experimental works. Sun is a throwback to her parent's hippy roots, wanting to protest governmental atrocities and protect the environment. But with Jed's incarceration and the focus shift within the family, her proactive plans are pushed aside. When a tabloid news show confronts a shotgun-toting Grandpa on the front porch, the resulting tragedy changes everyone. Earl is inspired to paint more commercial, sell-out canvases. Sun runs off and begins the process of becoming a radical. And the entire town of Greendale finally understands what it is like to be in the grips of the Devil himself.
Visually, there is nothing wrong with Neil Young's literal interpretation of his Greendale album. Using the characters he created for his singular song cycle as a guide, and translating the musical dialogue into lip-sync exchanges between the iconic individuals, Greendale the film helps flesh out and explain the essential elements of Greendale, the rock "novel" (as Young calls it). Relying on the grain inducing dynamics of a handheld camera and believing in a more image-oriented mise-en-scene, Young proceeds to paint the landscapes and circumstances he sings about. Closer to an operetta than a musical (there are only a couple of spoken lines – everything else is sung) the movie begins on a map of Greendale and walks us through the secretive streets of this interdependent community. Relationships are slowly established and the inevitable entwining of lives and consequences become clearly defined. Using a cast of mostly unknowns (with a couple of cool cameos, including one by Young himself) and relying on such cinematically striking elements as the close-up, the horizon and the always atmospheric mountains and seashore of the West Coast, the sketch of small town American facing universal intrusions like death, infamy, and corruption is realized in very creative terms.
And as a drama, Greendale is never completely dull. It's not very insightful, and the points it wants to make are blatantly obvious: drugs destroy lives outside the user/sellers realm of experience; government and big business are corrupt; the media are vultures, swooping down onto and into the lives of everyday people; only outright activism will save the planet and its population, etc. But as a reminder of Young's generation, of its hippy dippy roots in the mid-60s maelstrom of change, Greendale's ideals are logical and legitimate. No matter how modernized we've become, or at least feel we are, any call for dissent within a legitimate democracy is welcome and should be supported. So if Young, via his characters, wants to take on the media, the multi-national conglomerates and the protection of precious natural resources, who are we to stop him. Power to the people, Neil! Young's use of such liberal lamentations for his themes and plot points does instantly label the particular political bent he is going for, but support of such socio-economic issues shouldn't surprise any of his fans. Had he fashioned a forum to support the NRA, maybe we'd flinch. But Young has long held the moral high ground on numerous counter-culture concerns and his message here is no different. So if you can get in tune with Greendale's agenda and understand exactly what is happening within its occasionally convoluted storyline, you'll begin to see just what Young is trying to achieve. Yet for all its worrywart warning signs and glorified grandstanding, something keeps Greendale from generating any emotional resonance.
The answer as to why Greendale ultimately fumbles can best be summed up in one word: lyrics. More crucial to a musical story than any other element (yes, a tune to croon would be nice, but even the most beautiful melody can be massacred by miserable words) Young has completely failed as a wordsmith with the horrible, hamstrung emotions and silly straightforward exposition layered into these songs. Every cut here (with the exception of an obvious ballad like "Bandit") chugs along on a wave of wounded rock and roll, the lumbering grunts and groans of amplified guitars trampling over a cement steady beat. It's really nothing you haven't heard before on countless previous Young albums. But the lyrical lines, the descriptive turns of phrase are so heartbreakingly horrible that you wonder what Young himself thinks of such stupidly simplistic sentences. Characters use nursery school sentiments like "I hate the world/it makes me mad/when I look around/ I just get sad", and that sounds like Socrates compared to other hideous haikus here. Young also uses lots of "he said" and "she said" in his lines, making them rhythmically awkward and far too angular for his basic chord structures. Then there is also the eccentric choice of having every character, even the space case moonchild Sun singing in the craggy, croaking tones of Neil (the characters mouth the words to his vocals). With everyone sharing a similar timber, individual personality is all but eliminated. But it's the lack of true literary clairvoyance, the failing on almost every level of the fictional facets of Greendale that ultimately dooms this somber rotation of refrains. In many instances, Dr. Seuss has more insight into the human condition than Young – and his rhymes are less syrupy.
Yet, for all its written word waste product and same-sounding sonic sludge, Greendale finds a way to work itself into a memorable, if minor, experience. The closing number, "Be the Rain" has a great anthemic feel and even with the propaganda pieces obtusely stuck inside the chorus (that bullhorn vocal effect grows old very quickly) it has all the makings of a foot-stomping classic (the in concert version included on the DVD proves this out). As stated before, "Bandit" sticks out as a quite, creepy tone poem to the lonely longing of an unsatisfied life. Like musical soul mate Tom Waits, Young has a remarkable way with a straightforward ballad and this prominent, pretty track is no exception. All the other aural offerings making up Greendale's soundtrack are just extended jams with those joyless words draped over the top, delivered in an ersatz melodic sing-speak. But when combined with the visuals, when melded with the fantasy elements that the crappy couplets can never get close to suggesting, Greendale finally finds a voice. And what it has to say can be surprisingly effective. Young may be one of the last people on the planet who thinks a grass roots movement still has the power for real change and may relish in the rebel stance as a permanent pinch to the political machine. But with Greendale, he does find a soundscape soapbox to sound off on, even if he is creating it himself out of his own crazy compositions, flawed framing and stylistic excesses.
In the end though, one can't help but wonder what Greendale, both the movie and the album would have been like had a far more ingenious hand been penning the prosaic statements of human and universal truth contained herein. Collaboration has always been one of Neil's shortcomings (his work with CSNY and Pearl Jam is either the exception to, or indicative of, depending on your preference) and had he allowed someone else to run his routine lyrics into a far more ethereal set of inspired choices, maybe Greendale would have shimmered. Instead, it just glows for a little while before almost instantly loosing its incandescence. Sure, the narrative wouldn't have been so call and response clear, and many of the civilly disobedient diatribes wouldn't have had such heft, but in the realm of the rock opera or concept album, fuzzy unfocused feelings are welcome, not avoided. Music is best when it's reaching, not preaching; when it grabs you by the soul and carries you through three to nine minutes of amazing emotional spaces. Lessons are best left for school and like a couple of angry old men reading aloud from a primer on political activism, Greendale is more bully pulpit than beautiful dreamer. But at least Neil Young the director has the visual flair to put his points across in entertaining, if occasionally exasperating, fashion. Greendale is a fine long form video, a fine if faulty film and a mostly annoying musical experience. Put them all together though and you get an occasionally brilliant work of wasted opportunities. But at least it looks good trying.
Shot by Young and his longtime collaborator Benjamin Johnson on 16mm, 8mm and Super 8 cameras, while also incorporating some professional grade video inserts, Greendale looks hopelessly homemade and less than professional most of the time. Yet it is those very elements that make the image so provocative and prescient most of the time. The abundance of grain, the indistinguishable details and the overall vagueness of the print creates a scrapbook feeling, like we are looking into the long lost dreams of an entire community. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer by Sanctuary Records really enhances the film's effectiveness and plays into its overly artistic aspects perfectly.
As this is rock and roll, aural reproduction is everything and Greendale does not disappoint. There are three incredible versions of the soundtrack to be experienced with each one having its own advantages. Unless you own a full-blown DTS set-up, you will not be able to experience the crystalline sonic superiority of the 6.1 mix. It is truly amazing. The 5.1 comes close, but misses out on some of the guttural growl and frenzied feedback of Young's guitar. If you are ultimately forced to go with the Dolby Digital Stereo, don't be too sad. While it lacks much of the sonic subtlety and unreal raw power of the multi-speaker tracks, the basic two-channel version will suit you just fine.
Beginning with a couple of text-based offerings, the bonuses here are designed to help augment your expedition through Greendale. The biographies and character sketches give you a better idea of what the story is about and the people who populate it. Even better, the family tree sets up the interpersonal dynamics and disagreements between the town's populations, issues that the album itself all but overlooks. In the visual department, we are treated to a ten-minute behind the scenes featurette that shows Young hard at work on his labor of love. It would seem from the numerous comments made throughout this review that Young would be a bumbling buffoon behind the camera, a complete clod without a clue of what to do with a lens. Nothing could be farther from the truth. We see him as a careful, prepared filmmaker with an instinctual eye and a love of beautiful compositions. But perhaps the most magnificent extra element here is the concert footage (mentioned before) of Young, Crazy Horse and a cast of several selling "Be the Rain" to an appreciative audience at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado. A literal reconstruction of the scene in the film (or is it the other way around???) this blistering shot of pure rock and roll is emblematic of why Greendale perhaps should have stayed a piece of music. Silly words and strange song structure aside, the arena raising purity of the near timeless tune overtakes every flaw to make this a very memorable and moving performance. It's the best element on the DVD and a wonderful tribute to Neil Young as a vital, visual artist.
Apparently, the concept album isn't really dead after all. Rumor has it that Green Day, those snotty little pukes with a penchant for poo have finally grown up, and will be unleashing a punk rock opera this fall. Called American Idiot and featuring the trials and tribulations of a character called the Jesus of Suburbia, it promises to mix the Pinball Wizard with the group's pop-oriented take on that classic 70s stripped down anarchy to "revolutionize" the themed CD. Or maybe not. After all, when it comes to single subject song cycles, the failures outnumber the successes in less than multi-platinum fashion. Greendale, as both an album and a film, falls somewhere in the middle of all this mess. Had Young taken more time with his written elements, the overall effect would have been wonderful and wise. But with the pathetic passages marked with a substantial lack of character depth, all we are left with are pretty pictures and interesting noise. And while both of these facets make Greendale a generally entertaining experience, the overall impact is just shy of special. Indeed, there are several elements in this trip into the tainted core of small town America that are so surefire you wonder how Young could possibly fail. Then you listen to what he is so desperately trying to tell you and the truth comes crawling out. Greendale is definitely worth a look. But it won't come close to capturing the theories its author was so frantic to force upon us. While visually enriching, Greendale essentially stumbles around Alan Parsons without a classic piece of literature to replicate. I, Robot? I think not.
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