2003, NR, 87 min. Directed by Bernard Shakey. Starring Eric Johnson, Ben Keith, Sarah White, Elizabeth Keith, Erik Markegard, James Mazzeo.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 27, 2004
Bernard Shakey, for those of you out of the loop, is Neil Young’s filmmaking pseudonym, and judging from the grainy Super-8 camerawork in this fictional song cycle about the small rural town of Greendale and its core residents, the Green family, it’s entirely appropriate. Young was already a rock & roll legend by the time I was able to walk, and continues to both impress with his music and unabashedly passionate politics. His street cred is unassailable, and so I feel bad griping about Greendale, but the fact is that if this didn’t have Young’s name attached, it would likely have sunk without a trace (and may still yet). It’s not that it’s shot entirely in that most unforgiving of film gauges – Super-8 – but that the whole project feels only half there when there’s no CD art to flip through or concert hall to stand in. Young has always been sparing in his notes (just think of the riff from "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)" and then try to come up with something as simple and as simply devastating – you can’t). But Greendale – with no spoken dialogue and reliance instead on Young’s 10 songs to fill in the plot points that occur onscreen – takes the musician’s spontaneity and dislike of all things formulaic to a level that may work perfectly well in a live concert setting but feels more like a curiosity on the big screen. Young produced, directed, shot, and scored the whole shebang, which is essentially the tale of one family fighting to hold on to the life they’ve known in the face of encroaching modernism. The specter of the Bush administration hangs heavy over the aptly monikered Greens: grandfather Arius Green (Keith); his artist son, Earl (Mazzeo); cousin Jed (Johnson), who runs afoul of the law; and young Sun Green (show-stealer White). When Jed, with a car full of contraband, panics during a traffic stop and ends up killing a police officer, the entire Green family ends up the unwitting victim of Young’s media bugaboo. Sun, for her part, stages a protest at a power plant and arranges a massive "No War" logo on the side of a nearby hill; Grandpa tries his best to disperse the swarming reporters who flock to the family’s Double E homestead; and Jed languishes in jail. Apart from the corruption of traditional American life by the powers that be (in this case, rabid television reporters and the press at large, whom Young appears to hold responsible for … well, it’s not entirely clear what, but surely for something), Young uses the Green family’s predicament to comment on everything from the environment – hence "Green" – to the individual’s responsibility in the face of an unsympathetic state. It bears noting that Greendale is an awful lot like the town of Mayberry R.F.D. in that paragon of homespun virtue, The Andy Griffith Show, but then again, it’s probably equally wise to bear in mind that before Griffith was the sheriff of that hamlet, he was in A Face in the Crowd playing a character who, with his conniving, manipulative, black-at-heart ways, might well represent Greendale’s dark and awful future. Young, unsurprisingly, says "uh-uh" to that, offering up at least a partial resolution to his town’s troubles in the form of the closing number that, for all its obviousness, still feels as true as Young’s battle cry, "Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World." (For Chronicle interview with Neil Young see www.austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2004-02-27/screens_feature.html.)