Neil Young, probably learning a lesson from Dylan's folly, gives up any pretence of professionalism for his charmingly amateurish Greendale. Shot on super-8 and video, with a cast of complete unknowns and a notable absence of sync-sound, Greendale looks like that movie you would have made when you were 12 if you'd had the time, a stack of Kodachrome 40 cartridges and Crazy Horse backing you up.
All of which somehow works--which is weird, because by the usual standards, this should be a terrible film. What Neil Young has done, in his cinematography, directing and lyrics, is to capture something that is almost impossible to fake: naivety. Yet I've got to imagine he's faking it, because, well, he's what? A year shy of being 60, an internationally famous rock star and a veteran of what is no doubt an enormous pharmacy of fun.
The story, such as it is, is the tale of the Green family and the town of Greendale. Tragedy strikes when Jed Green, the bad seed of the family, kills a police officer. Grandpa is then hounded by reporters; officer Carmichael's widow feels the pain; and 18-year-old Sun Green goes on a quest to save the world from pollution and evil.
There's no actual dialogue, just the words to Young's songs, which are occasionally lip-synced by the performers. In that regard, this is more like a set of music videos than a movie, but it's far more engaging than watching MTV for 90 minutes. The sloppy camera work is pretty like a unicorn, and the message of fighting back against evil has the childlike charm of a hippie's first love-in.
To spice things up, the devil dances throughout the town of Greendale in red shoes, giving gifts of art and purpose to the downtrodden residents. Constant updates from the TV news tell us, in text scrolls beneath well-coifed anchors, about the loss of liberty, land and faithful government. And throughout, Neil Young and Crazy Horse do that thing they do.
Actually, that may be the weakest element. At a live Neil Young concert many years ago, a fan shouted at Young, "It all sounds the same!" to which he replied, "It's all the same song."
And it really is. It's that bar-room blues riff with Young's sing-talking over it, and most of the songs suffer from this. However, Young comes through in the final number, a rousing anthem with a chorus of mountain girls singing "be the rain," as the whole world is exhorted, by a megaphone-bearing Sun Green, to save the Earth, which, as we all know, is in dire need of saving.
Can this kind of '60s idealism still work? Well, it works a lot better than the crusty faux-cynicism that Dylan put forward in Masked and Anonymous, and it's more emotionally gratifying than watching the Punisher murderize his enemies for their sins.
Who knows? Maybe old-fashioned innocence and activism are just what's needed in cinema. The amateur format works with the concept, and it's a lot easier to take the message when it's delivered by the just-plain-folks actors than when it comes from mega-millionaires whose hearts are in the right places but whose Hummers are idling in the parking lot.
And really, shouldn't we save the Earth? Last time I checked, which I do compulsively about every 30 minutes, even the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army are admitting that global warming is going to radically change the world in our kids' lifetimes. When I hear that, and then see what's being done about it (roughly nothing), I feel like I'm going crazy. Maybe holding hands and singing a song of empowerment makes sense in light of the untreated schizophrenia that seems to have afflicted the people we didn't elect to lead us.
Of course, that's beyond the scope of a movie review. All I can say is that if you're a Neil Young fan, you'll definitely want to see Greendale. And if you want to see what can be done on a minimal budget that doesn't involve torturing teenagers in Maryland, you should also check out Greendale. And, also, if you want to see why film doesn't need 60 edits per second or a lot of explosions to be visually appealing, you should check out Greendale. On the other hand, if you hate bar-room blues, beautiful sunsets and the hope that the children are the future, then you should probably stay home and tend to your bitterness while watching Fox News and eating mad cows. But when the end times come, don't say you weren't warned.