Young's Town, USA
A guided tour of 'Greendale'
Neil Young has really gone and done it this time. After some 40 years in the music business, we ought to be accustomed to the unpredictability of his path. Young can write and perform achingly beautiful and gentle songs and threateningly discordant and loud music. He has been both a hitmaker and a pariah to the record companies that have released his music; has explored more subgenres of music than most record stores have sections for; has joined, left, and rejoined the supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; and plays sometimes as a solo act, with his longtime band Crazy Horse or with anyone who strikes his fancy. Young has always had a thing for documenting on film his live performances and material from the road, most of which remains in storage but some of which has been released in various permutations, usually under his nom du cinema, Bernard Shakey. But now Young's latest release is a multifaceted project called Greendale. It is a feature-length movie (which opens in Austin this Friday), a CD that comprises a storytelling song cycle of 10 new songs, and a touring performance work in which Young and Crazy Horse perform the music while a stage full of performers acts out the dialogue-rich songs amid sets that appear to be made from cardboard and construction paper.
The opening lyrics of the opening song on Greendale provide a hint: "I won't retire/But I might retread." The words belong to a Greendale character named Grandpa, but the sentiment might as well be Young's. Greendale the movie, the CD, the live show conveys a sense not so much of a new direction but of renewal itself. In some ways, the idea of Greendale a place so vivid in Young's mind that its CD cover and a Web site (www.neilyoung.com) have detailed plat maps and family trees represents a pastoral ideal, the longing for the simplicity of small towns and friendly communities. But the music is also full of what can only be termed post-9/11 urgency. The music and the movie tell the story of the Green family: Grandpa, who likes to sit on the porch and read his newspaper; Earl, a Vietnam vet and unsuccessful painter of psychedelic pictures; Earl's wife Edith, who likes to dance; his daughter Sun Green, a teenager who wants to become a performance artist and creates a public commotion at a power company before leaving Greendale for Alaska with Earth Brown; and Jed, the unfortunate cop-killer who, like all of us, has a bit of the devil in him. There are many other characters, mostly part of the Green extended family, all voyaging through cycles of tragedy and rebirth. Topics that have been of concern to Young over the years recur: media monopolies, ecological disaster, and damaged souls. But Greendale gives them new vigor, partly by putting faces, names, and stories with the ideas, but also by casting Sun Green and others as the new vanguard of grassroots activism.
I was fortunate enough to see the live-show version of Greendale this past September in Toronto, where it was performed prior to the movie's world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. (The movie premiered in Austin in October during the Austin Film Festival.) The show was incredible. Music, images, and a call to action reverberated throughout the stadium. Also stirring the audience like nothing I'd ever before witnessed at a Neil Young concert was an outpouring of love for the home-turf return of Young, a native Canadian. It wasn't until a few days later that I saw the film, and it's only recently that I've listened to the CD as a stand-alone album. Nothing approximates the experience of having the full-on Greendale extravaganza wash over you, and it would be wrong to imply otherwise. The movie is shot in grainy Super-8, and the set design as well as the actors' performances all have something like the flavor of a high-school play. Some have found this unpolished presentation lacking, and reviewers have been split in their reactions. Yes, Greendale is raw and technically unpretentious, but I would argue the effect is more like a work of agitprop than an amateur performance. Stylistically, Greendale is completely in keeping with Young's creative legacy of spontaneity and experimentation. We had a chance to talk with Young by phone from the road as he was about to embark on another tour to support the movie's release.
Austin Chronicle: Let's talk about the origins of this movie. How did it come about to make a visual component for these songs?
Neil Young: It started with the album project. We started in 2002, in August. And I had the studio outfitted with green screen windows so that I could film it.
AC: Have you done that before with other albums?
NY: No. I'm just always thinking, why shouldn't people be able to watch people making the record? It's pretty straight-ahead. You just set up five or six cameras, and leave them there. So you have this kind of surveillance thing happening.
AC: Like Let It Be.
NY: Yeah. So we did it like that. But I planned on putting things in these huge picture windows that were all green screen so I could introduce all kinds of Super-8 scenery that I had shot.
AC: The images would come later, not while recording?
NY: Yeah, I was going to do that after I finished the record. But I had no idea what the songs were about or anything at that point. That's just the idea that I started off with. And then, when I started writing the songs, of course everything was changing and the songs were telling a story. Then there was the story itself and the characters, and it just started to develop as I wrote them and I record them just after I write them. As we were going from chapter to chapter in this book/story/album/whatever it is, it was unfolding for everybody the guys recording it, the people playing it, we were all learning about it all at once. I like to work that way where I can write and then perform it right away.
AC: It's curious to me that you say you didn't know what was going to happen to the characters before it happened. Explain that process.
NY: Right. One thing just leads to another, and I just let it. And then, upon review, you can see, well, they kind of fit together.
AC: But if, as you have said, you don't want Grandpa to die, you don't have to allow that to happen.
NY: Unfortunately, I had nothing to do with that. [laughing] I feel like that just happened. I was just writing the song and oh, my God, Grandpa had a heart attack. He got too excited.
AC: The media drove him crazy.
NY: The media drove him nuts. A lot of things got to him.
AC: Have you always thought about your music in visual terms?
NY: Yes. Some aspects of it. I have several different kinds of things that I do in music, but there is one distinct type of song that I write that's very visual. I don't write them all the time. Sometimes the songs are very personal and they have images in them but they're not atmosphere/landscape kind of things like some of my songs are. Greendale just seemed to be a natural progression, I guess. Plus, there's my love of the camera. When I finished the record, we sat down and listened to it, and it was very moving listening to it. I knew what the story was. It was like listening to it on the radio or something, like listening to a serial. Then we decided we're going to put some things in the windows. Maybe we can put not just landscapes but some of this dialogue in the windows. Then the idea started: I could just film all the songs and the dialogue and get the characters and put it together. It wasn't even a film at that point. It was just something to put in the window. The story itself is a lot stronger than anything I counted on. The story dictated what happened. Then when we filmed the dialogue and tried to introduce it into something with the music that also showed us recording the music and the dialogue and the characters all at once, it was like, wow, there are so many things going on here at once you really can't focus on anything. It didn't work. After seeing just the film putting it together with the music wasn't nearly as strong as just the film by itself. That's when we started realizing that, well, we should flesh this out and fill out the instrumentals and develop a few more characters. It just kind of fell together.
AC: You simply used people that were around to play the characters?
NY: People who were in the neighborhood that I knew. I thought a lot about who I cast for different things. I got Ben Keith, my old steel-guitar-playing friend from Nashville. He came out and was Grandpa. And I got Sarah White, who's one of my daughter's classmates, to play Sun Green. I used to go and watch them perform in the high school productions. And Earth Brown is one of the guys who works on my ranch.
AC: It definitely has a "Hey kids, let's put on a show" feel.
NY: Yeah. "Let's make a movie."
AC: Watching you with Crazy Horse as a bandleader, and now as the maestro of this whole thing, Greendale feels like a grander show than ever before.
NY: Live, it's quite an experience. We're going to go out and do it again for another five weeks and support the release of the film with it wherever we can.
AC: But you're not coming to Austin. Gripe, gripe.
NY: Well, you know, I'm griping about that, too. I wanted to go back to Texas. We didn't play Austin the last time I was there.
AC: I keep trying to describe the live Greendale extravaganza to people and feel like I'm failing.
NY: It's kind of hard. You really have to see it live to really understand it.
AC: You were in Austin last fall for the Austin Film Festival. Are things any different being treated as a filmmaker? Especially this conference, which is dedicated to the art of screenwriting.
NY: Right. I seemed to fit in. It's really stories, you know. Screenwriting and everything, it's just storytelling. My dad's a novelist. He's a fiction writer. He's written a lot of stories. It's kind of in my blood.
AC: So have you learned anything new from hanging out with filmmakers and screenwriters?
NY: I just had a good time. I don't know very many people, and I'm just happy to be there. For me, it's something different, and I like doing it. I like making films. If I have nothing else in common with them, I have a camera and a want to tell a story. That's common ground.
AC: Do you get into the gadgetry aspect of the camera and electronics?
NY: No. I just like to tell a story and I like the funky little cameras. My camera is pretty funky and older. It's an old Eumig Nautica, a funky little underwater German Super-8 camera.
AC: Underwater! That explains the look of the movie.
NY: Well, yeah.
AC: In The Year of the Horse, Jim Jarmusch's use of Super-8 to record Crazy Horse worked perfectly with the material.
NY: It works well. It's good for what it is. For me, doing it with Super-8 is really a good way to do it, and it'll probably work again for me, because my kind of stories are ... I like to do things that are urgent. The filming of it, it's all about the moment. It's not about the technical aspect of it. It's about the magic of the performance of that scene. I'm more interested in that than anything else. As far as the camera moves and the way the camera looks and everything, I'm a student of David Myers. He was my DP for years and I learned how to shoot from watching him. Shooting the stuff is just a joy. It's really fun. I like to do it in kind of a raw way that looks like we are making a home movie. Throughout Greendale, you're almost waiting for somebody to turn around and look in the camera and say, "Don't do that" or "Stop," like you're kidding around when someone is filming everything that is going on. We're just having fun. We got a camera and some music and characters, and away we went.
AC: Apart from all the concert footage you've filmed over the years, you've made one other narrative film, Human Highway, in 1982.
NY: I'm still developing. We did that in 35 millimeter, except for one part of it that we did in 16 millimeter. And I didn't shoot that. It was fun in some ways. I was acting in it and that was kind of fun. And directing, that was fun. But I really enjoy directing and shooting more and writing the stories. That's really where I am.
AC: So who's Bernard Shakey?
NY: It just makes it less confusing for me.
AC: Anything else?
NY: Like I said, I feel like it's a gift. I was glad to get the songs and really happy to be able to tell the story, and it seems like it's the time for it. And I've been really happy with the way people have received it. It's been so over-the-top, I can't believe it. What a good feeling.
Greendale opens in Austin on Friday, Feb. 27, at the Dobie Theatre. For a review and showtimes, see Film listings.