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Case Number 14696

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Crosby, Stills, Nash, And Young: CSNY/Deja Vu

Lionsgate // 2008 // 97 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // October 9th, 2008

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All Rise...

Judge Victor Valdivia's patriotism has been questioned repeatedly, so he's having Uncle Sam's face tattooed over his own.

The Charge

"Find the cost of freedom
Buried in the ground.
Mother Earth is calling you
Lay your body down."
—"Find the Cost of Freedom"

Opening Statement

The title Déjà Vu is meant to work on two levels. On one, it's a reference to the 1970 album of the same name, the album that most Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young fans consider their definitive recording as well as a landmark of the hippie era. It's also a commentary on the political and global atmosphere of 2006, the year that Déjà Vu was filmed. The deep division in the United States caused by the war in Iraq bore a striking resemblance to the divisions caused by the war in Vietnam back in 1970. As America struggled with an increasingly unpopular war with no end in sight, CSNY embarked on a tour, just as it did back then, and served as a rallying point for the antiwar movement even as the band angered some of its fans. Déjà Vu chronicles that tour and, for the most part, it's a solid film that contains some remarkable stories and scenes, along with some great music, although it works much better when staying in the present than attempting to relate to the past.

Facts of the Case

Déjà Vu was filmed during CSNY's summer 2006 "Freedom of Speech" tour. ABC News journalist Mike Cerre, who accompanied the Army during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is used here as a narrator and interviewer (he is credited as an "embedded correspondent"). Cerre interviews the band members, various fans at the concerts, music critics and radio DJs, and veterans and their families, all of whom have strong opinions about the statement CSNY is making with these shows. In addition, there are clips from interviews and performances from throughout the band's career.

The Evidence

If Déjà Vu was merely another documentary about an aging superstar act on a lucrative concert tour, the film would have no resonance outside of CSNY's fanbase. The "Freedom of Speech" tour, however, was not just any concert tour; that means that Déjà Vu is not just another music documentary. The significant difference is that CSNY was not touring to support a new group effort (the band has only recorded three studio albums as a quartet, the last in 2000) nor was it simply embarking on a lucrative but pointless nostalgia tour. CSNY was actually promoting Neil Young's controversial album Living With War, which contained the incendiary song "Let's Impeach the President." That song was far more blatantly provocative than anything Young had ever written before; even at the height of Watergate, Young wrote and recorded "Campaigner," a sympathetic look at the counter-culture's bête noire, Richard Nixon. Young had even championed Ronald Reagan in the 1984 presidential elections.

In 2006, however, the ever-mercurial Young couldn't resist another shot at challenging his audience's expectations. Just months before the crucial '06 midterm elections, Young and his cohorts—David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash—decided to use the promise of a reunited CSNY tour (only the fourth in the group's 36-year history) as a lure to expose Young's contentious new material to the widest possible audience.

Déjà Vu was directed by Young under his frequent pseudonym "Bernard Shakey," and his direction is more thorough than many would expect. It's to Young's and CSNY's credit that they chose to include footage that sometimes paints them in a less than flattering light. The most fascinating occurs at a concert in Atlanta, one of the first stops on the tour. The audience, more conservative than on previous shows in California and Colorado, initially responds positively to CSNY's classic hits like "Southern Cross" and "Wooden Ships." When CSNY starts performing "Let's Impeach the President," however, the crowd erupts in a mixture of cheers and boos, and several audience members storm out in disgust.

Déjà Vu allows these audience members to speak, and Young, far from editing their comments to make them look like ignorant backwater hicks, allows them to state their case. Most of them make it simple: They paid for a concert ticket, the performers did something they did not like, and they exercised their right to leave. It's as clear-cut as that. Were they wrong for refusing to listen to a song that they don't agree with? Was CSNY wrong for performing a song they passionately believe in? Déjà Vu doesn't argue either way, mainly because both views are equally valid. The point is not that the CSNY members are innocent victims but that they are willing to risk alienating longtime fans to make a controversial statement. Whether that risk is either foolhardy or courageous (or, more probably, a bit of both) is left to viewers to decide.

It should be noted that Déjà Vu isn't a concert film. In fact, there are no complete musical performances in it, although most of the band's biggest and best songs are at least partially heard, and the performances are all as good as anyone could hope for. True, it would have been useful to hear a complete version of "Let's Impeach the President" to hear just how the audiences who do stay to hear it in its entirety react at the end. The film, however, isn't really about the music, but about the time itself. It's a portrait of how charged the climate had become by '06 that even an established superstar act like CSNY could not escape controversy. Similarly, the film clips of past interviews and performances are not intended as a detailed history of the band, as the film assumes that viewers already know the basic story. Instead, they're meant to help explain the similarities and differences between 1970 and 2006. Some make the point explicitly clear. One old snippet shows band members explaining themselves passionately to hippie writers. This is contrasted with the clip of Young being interviewed in 2006 by a bubble-headed showbiz "journalist" who wants to know what "Let's Impeach the President" is really about. People who wonder why so many are cynical about the media should start here. In its depiction of a divided population, an incompetent media, and artists who struggle to find a way to express their views, Déjà Vu paints a reasonably accurate portrait of its time, as well as any other documentary about politics and the war circa 2006.

At this point, this reviewer has a significant complaint. The copy of Déjà Vu provided for review did not work in a JVC XV-S500 DVD player, and only played on a computer DVD drive. Fans should be alert and check their copies to ensure that those are not defective as well. Consequently, it is not possible to assess the exact quality of the 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer or the 5.1 Dolby and DTS mixes, although what appeared on a computer monitor and speakers seemed acceptable. The extras are not as detailed as one might hope. Apart from the film's trailer (3:02) and some text extras, there are ten music videos Young made for all ten tracks on Living With War. These consist mainly of TV news footage and shots of Young in the recording studio edited into CNN-like montages. Hardcore fans of the album will be pleased, but others might find the visuals grindingly repetitive. The songs themselves vary in quality, and are all at least worth hearing. There is also the video accompaniment for "Find the Cost of Freedom" (3:46) that played onscreen during the tour when the song was performed. It's similar to the videos, although here the montage is mainly a list of names of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq during the war. It can be painful, as it's meant to be, and some viewers might find it too sad to watch more than once, although the performance of the song is among the best it's ever gotten.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Though Déjà Vu is a good film, it isn't the definitive statement Young wants it to be. For instance, Young goes too far in drawing the parallels between the Vietnam era of 1970 and the Iraq era of 2006, either by going so far as to state them explicitly himself or by having others in the film do so. It's as if he's unsure whether the audience will get the connection unless he heavy handedly spells it out for us. Also, Young tends to meander on occasion. He spends a lot of time on an Army veteran who writes and performs songs about the war on his acoustic guitar in a nightclub. One or two songs with him would have made the point, but by showing off some four songs, it stops the film cold. At that point, it's hard to remember that this film is not specifically about the war, but about CSNY. Young's pretentions sometimes get the better of him. This is especially evident when he attempts to visualize the critical reaction to the tour by having actors read reviews while random images play onscreen. This attempt to invoke Ken Burns-style docudrama falls painfully flat. No matter how harsh some of the reactions were, these are still only negative concert reviews, not letters from the front.

Closing Statement

Déjà Vu isn't quite in the same league as Gimme Shelter or Woodstock, but that's only because it's much harder to make a film that defines the sprawling multi-headed beast popular music has become in 2006 as opposed to 1970. Viewers who are unfamiliar with or even hostile to CSNY's music might not enjoy it as fully as others, but even they will recognize that the film is a generally successful depiction of its time. Artists as diverse as Kanye West and the Dixie Chicks went through controversies similar to the ones seen here around the same time, and that gives Déjà Vu some additional importance that far outweighs its flaws. CSNY fans, even those who may have lost touch with the band recently, will get the most out of Déjà Vu; it will allow them to remember why they connected so strongly with the band's music in the first place. Recommended.

The Verdict

CSNY: Déjà Vu is not guilty, acquitting itself through a mixture of honest storytelling and good music. The quality control department at Lionsgate, however, deserves to have their patriotism questioned for putting out substandard product.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 70
Audio: 70
Extras: 80
Acting: 85
Story: 80
Judgment: 85

Perp Profile

Studio: Lionsgate
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• PCM 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English
• Spanish
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Concerts and Musicals
• Documentary
• Performance

Distinguishing Marks

• Living With War Music Videos
• "Find the Cost of Freedom" Music Video
• Tour Info
• Bios
• Trailer


• IMDb
• Official Site

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