Judge Bill Treadway rocks out to the film version of Neil Young's musical novel.
"The movies were made so I could get away from music for a while. That way, the music could remain fresh for me."—Neil Young on VH1's Behind the Music
As you may or may not recall, I previously reviewed a concert DVD featuring Neil Young performing material from his then recent album Greendale.That album was not one of Young's best efforts when released in August 2003: It felt like an attempt to make a rock opera, a story told through a cycle of songs. The story didn't hang together as well as other rock operas; there were some standout songs, but it just didn't gel into a cohesive product. The concert, filmed in Dublin, was an improvement. With the acoustic arrangements, the songs had more power.
Now here I am reviewing the feature film Greendale, which was written and directed by Young under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey. Young doesn't take an ordinary approach to filmmaking. As his previous films Journey Through the Past (1974), Rust Never Sleeps (1979), and Human Highway (1983) demonstrate, Young has an avant-garde, experimental approach to filmmaking. His frequent use of smaller-gauge film formats such as Super 8 or 16mm creates a ragged, raw feel that is purely intentional. It is that ragged, raw feel that makes Greendale work as a film. Cutting between narratives with various video montages, the film is visually breathtaking. By the conclusion of the film, I was wilted by the sheer power of the imagery.
What is Greendale about? Even after seeing this film, I am still not entirely sure. The imagery gives some clues, but it is really a series of segments rather than a cohesive tale. Greendale is a small California town occupied by 25,000 residents. Young's songs tell the story of the Green family, which is led by Grandpa (longtime Young collaborator Ben Keith). Living with him are his son Earl and granddaughter Sun. Life is rather ordinary and dull until one fateful day when black sheep cousin Jed murders a cop and unleashes a series of events that the Green family will never forget.
The music featured in the film is taken directly from the album, which featured electric arrangements performed by Young with longtime backing band Crazy Horse. While the songs felt lacking on the album, they feel much richer on film. The potent combination of 8mm film, video, and assorted formats somehow brings out the best in Young's songs. Also, the visuals give us an idea of what this song cycle is leading to. We can follow the story a bit more easily than when listening to the album, although it is still thin soup.
Young appears only briefly in the film. He is not shown on screen singing any of the songs. Instead, his actors lip-synch to the prerecorded music. Although it seems goofy to see a young, blonde actress moving her mouth but hear Neil Young's voice come out, that feeling eventually passes. It's a surprisingly effective method. It also makes sense since the songs are often expressing the point of view of the characters.
Sanctuary presents Greendale in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Due to the different film and video formats used to make the film, it is hard to judge the quality of the transfer. Based on Young's previous work, I am willing to bet that this is exactly the way he intended Greendale to look. The image is at times grainy, but that is a natural effect of Super 8 and digital video. Some scenes are blurry, but again, that is the effect Young is going for.
The sound is really what is important anyway. Sanctuary provides the choice of DTS Surround 6.1, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, or Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. If your player can handle DTS, this is the track to select. The sound is eardrum-piercing and stunning in its clarity. Young's songs gain extra punch with the enhanced sound. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track is fairly strong as well, but the mono mix sounded far too muted. Young's music should be heard loud and clear.
Sanctuary has thrown together some decent extras. There is a fine making-of featurette that shows Young at work as director. The featurette shows that Young is a serious, well-prepared director, debunking the accusations that he is laid-back and amateurish. The family tree and character profiles help make sense of the story, which is important since the album never really made it clear. The gem of the package is a nine-minute live performance of "Be the Rain" featuring Young and Crazy Horse. This is a great performance, even better than the take used in the film.
Greendale is recommended for diehard Neil Young fans. I also recommend the disc for those who love avant-garde, experimental filmmaking. All others…beware!
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• Making-of Featurette
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