Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for Bernard Shakey Film Retrospective: Neil Young on Film opening across Canada this summer, with an exclusive engagement at The Royal, Toronto, July 23-26.
Neil Young has always been an artist unafraid of reinvention and risk-taking. He once changed his sound so much that in 1988, when he released This Note’s for You, his record company sued him for “not sounding like Neil Young”. With this history in mind, it’s not that farfetched that he wrote a record that attempted to tell a story, with each song like a chapter in a book. He figured he should try it because his father was a novelist and he wanted to sort of adapt the concept to music. The album was called Greendale and told the story of the Green family in this little fictional town.
The songs are interconnected and do tell a loose story about this family, but the trouble is that there is nothing more than those songs.
Young, building on the idea that his album told a story, decided to make a film out of the record. Rather than adapting his record into a screenplay, he filmed people silently while they lip-synced his record and made the record the soundtrack of the film. Grandpa is played by legendary pedal-steel player and frequent Young bandmate Ben Keith, Sun is Sarah White, Eric Johnson plays a dual role as Sun’s father Jed and the Devil, Grandma is Elizabeth Keith (Ben’s wife), Edith is Pegi Young (Neil’s wife), Earl is James Mazzeo, Officer Carmichael is played by Paul Supple, his widow is Sydney Stephen and Erik Markegard is Earth Brown, a man Sun meets in a bar after she leaves home.
The songs are interconnected and do tell a loose story about this family, but the trouble is that there is nothing more than those songs. Music is a powerful medium, but when exclusively applied with no dialogue or character development, what is left is an 87 minute music video. Mind you, it is the kind of music video that I’ve always felt should have been made, that is, one with a direct connection to what is happening in the song. This would be good in 3-5 minutes doses but a full 87 minutes gets a little boring (the record wasn’t that enthralling just listening to it either, to be honest, and this coming from Neil Young fan of 15 years).
Considering that the album is the film’s dialogue and primary story delivery device, it’s difficult to review the film without reviewing the record. The songs are good, but far from any of Young’s best and most are unmemorable.
That’s not to downplay Young’s moderate accomplishment in making the film. Comprised of friends and assorted non-professional actors, he shot the film himself on grainy 8mm that was blown up to 35mm. This gives the film a home movie look to it, making it feel very personal. The way he frames his shots is amateurish at best, and while it can get a little tiresome it also reinforces the authenticity Young was working for. He seems to have wanted it to look homespun, except in the parts that show news coverage, which are in sharp focus without the graininess that pervades the rest of the film.
Young’s songs focus on the Greens as a means of telling a story about a family whose patriarch longs for the old days, rattling off platitudes from his mother and who just doesn’t seem to understand how everything got to be so different and Sun who is a young liberal, full of fire and passion and who does brazen stunts to spread her word. Intertwined within this is a story of violence with cousin Jed shooting Officer Carmichael, struggling artist Earl (Sun’s father) and even an appearance by the Devil, randomly causing mischief.
Considering that the album is the film’s dialogue and primary story delivery device, it’s difficult to review the film without reviewing the record. The songs are good, but far from any of Young’s best and most are unmemorable, with the exception of the only real stand-alone song on the record/in the film Be the Rain. Young shot this as kind of an epilogue/meta comment on the film itself, using the rehearsal for the film on a stage with cardboard set representations for the song. It’s set quite outside the main narrative but uses the actors and has Sarah White lip-synching the song. There are snippets and a little more story after, wrapping everything up.
The difficulty with the record as narrative is that novels and films have their plots layered over with character development and time to explore the characters and the plot has time and room to unfold. With a record, each song could do the same, but with less time overall considering the average length of a song and the confines of rhyme and the need to not just sing the plot. Young wrote regular songs that featured the same characters, but there are all just established types, no nuance or development in them at all. In film terms, it’s all plot. We get to see and hear what happens to these people, but it’s difficult to care beyond the fact that they are the main characters so if we’re going to watch (or listen), they are who we are focused on. The only characters that elicit any emotion are Grandpa and the Widow, Grandpa because he’s featured in most of the songs and the Widow because her song/sub-plot is quite compelling.
Each of the actors do well with what they have, but since they’re just mouthing Young’s songs, they have to rely on a lot of how they look and how they are positioned and their body language to convey the song’s lyrics. Each one works well and Young directs them in a way that brings out the most for his songs. It’s interesting to see them take on these roles and give pseudo-modern performances completely silently. It would be an enormous feat for established actors, but since everyone in this film is a non-professional, that makes the accomplishment even more impressive.
There is a message simplicity and a plea to return to simpler ways woven into the record and the film. Young also works in a call to activism and a wish that people would be the change the world needs, or as he titled his song Be the Rain, that is be what washes out the bad we’ve done. It’s a little preachy, but Young can get that way sometimes when he is passionate about something.
Greendale may not be everything it was intended to be, but it’s still worth watching for the experiment Young attempted in bringing a narrative to an album in a different way than The Who did with their rock operas Tommy and Quadrophenia. He went small to tell a story about a family in a small town that has a lot of problems. It drags a bit once the novelty wears off, but it’s ambitious and I’d rather watch an ambitious failure than an unambitious success any day.
Greendale may not be everything it was intended to be, but it’s still worth watching for the experiment Young attempted in bringing a narrative to an album. It drags a bit once the novelty wears off, but it’s ambitious and I’d rather watch an ambitious failure than an unambitious success any day.