Neil Young Pits Idealism Against Powerco



Jarid Johnson ~ Shakey Pictures

Sarah White, as Sun Green, with a band called the Imitators. 

Sun revives her family's tradition of activism 

in the Neil Young movie "Greendale."


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Greendale Second Edition: Inside Greendale


Source: New York Times (NY)
Author: A.O. Scott
Published: March 19, 2004
Copyright: 2004 The New York Times Co.
Contact: [email protected] 

Seems like that guy singin' this song/has been doin' it for a long time./ Is there anything he knows/ He hasn't said?" The guy in question, who also happens to be the guy singing this lyric, is Neil Young, who has been performing his cranky, prophetic anthems and laments for as long as some of us have been alive. The 10 songs that blanket "Greendale," an album-length music video that Mr. Young directed under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey, have a familiar, lived-in sound.

They were all composed for this project, but their churning, stripped-down sound heavy-bottomed, fuzzy electric guitars under girding his plaintive tenor has the ring of tried-and-true wisdom. Maybe he has said it all before and maybe the songs all sound a little too similar, but "Greendale" proves that Mr. Young, oracle, scold and deep-dyed weirdo, is still worthy of attention.

Over the years his political views have swerved all over the road. "Greendale," a series of linked vignettes about the Green family and the Northern California town that bears their name, hunkers down in a world-weary, environmentally minded libertarianism. Mr. Young, who serves as both the musical narrator and the voice of his characters (there is no dialogue), expresses a persuasive mixture of idealism and resignation. "A little love and affection/in everything you do/and the world will be a better place/either with or without you," he sings, with a plain-spoken sincerity that makes the statement less simplistic than it sounds.

Much that is going on in the world fills Mr. Young with disgust: the intrusiveness of the media; the repressive, fear-mongering tendencies of the government; and especially the blind rapacity of large corporations. These are mighty forces, arrayed against individuals whose only weapons are cussedness and pluck. But since those qualities are imparted to the Greens by their creator, the odds against them don't seem as long as they might. The family patriarch, Grandpa Green, sits on his porch reading the newspaper, his gray ponytail tucked behind a baseball cap. He embodies both the spirit of self-sufficient, agrarian America and the back-to-the-land strain of hippie radicalism that sought to revive it.

This spirit is beleaguered by bad luck, greed and the devil himself, who prances around Greendale aided by some wonderfully low-rent special effects. "Greendale," which opens today in New York, was shot by Mr. Young himself on video, and by the look of it the production budget might have cracked three figures. This is part of its charm, and also part of its point: every frame, like every note from Mr. Young's guitar, vibrates with a commitment to the virtues of the handmade. The lack of polish is integral to the art.

And there is really no other way to categorize this splendid, crotchety artifact. At times it feels like a book of short stories set to music a touch of Raymond Carver, a hint of Sherwood Anderson or like a variation on the themes of "Vineland," Thomas Pynchon's underrated novel of the Northern California counterculture in twilight.

But Mr. Young is concerned, in the end, less with observation than with exhortation, and his nostalgic impulses are checked by his anger. The last part of the movie follows Grandpa's granddaughter, a radiant redhead with the appropriately radiant name of Sun Green, as she reclaims the family tradition of defiant activism, finally setting off for Alaska to save its fragile ecosystem from the predations of Powerco.

Maybe this sounds a bit didactic. The film's concluding anthem "Be the Rain," whose chorus admonishes us to "save the planet for another day" certainly is. But Mr. Young has long since earned the right to drop a lesson or two, and "Greendale" is as full of crazy, honest life as anything he has done. "I'm exercising my freedom of silence," Grandpa tells a pushy television reporter. Let's hope Mr. Young never does.


Written and directed by Bernard Shakey (a k a Neil Young); director of photography, Mr. Young; edited by Toshi Onuki; music by Mr. Young, performed by Neil Young and Crazy Horse; produced by L. A. Johnson; released by Shakey Pictures. At Landmark's Sunshine Cinema, 139-143 East Houston Street, East Village. Running time: 93 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Sarah White (Sun Green), Eric Johnson (Jed Green/Devil), Ben Keith (Grandpa Green), Erik Markegard (Earth Brown), Elizabeth Keith (Grandma Green), Pegi Young (Edith Green) and James Mazzeo (Earl Green).


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