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.
The ragged, fly-by-night documentary Muddy Track (1987) follows Neil Young and Crazy Horse through their turbulent 1987 European tour. Young directed the film under his pseudonym Bernard Shakey, and shot much of it himself as well, using a videocamera he named “Otto” early in the tour. Though Muddy Track never received a proper release, the film has been available through fan trading for many years, and some of the footage made its way to Jim Jarmusch’s rockumentary Year of the Horse (1997). Disjointed but entertaining, Muddy Track is part video diary, part travelogue and part rock documentary.
Disjointed but entertaining, Muddy Track is part video diary, part travelogue and part rock documentary.
Opening with a scene meant to give the viewer the impression that a documentary crew would be following the tour, Young declares that he wants “only the bad things” in the final film product. He doesn’t quite get his wish, often deliberately; while much of the grousing about a notoriously bad night on stage is included in the film, not a note of this performance is shown. It’s these omissions as well as that after-the-fact, staged moment with a fake film crew that show Young’s insecurity at work. Much of what we know now happened during this tour is hidden from view in Muddy Track, but plenty of internal clashes and diva behavior makes it to the screen to let us know that trouble was afoot.
Amidst the disasters of canceled shows, bad weather and even a riot are lengthy scenes of Young and Crazy Horse on stage, sounding amazing, of course, Young’s voice alternately pensive and savage, the guitars fighting each other, joining in a few moments of gorgeous harmony, then flying off into their own chaotic worlds again. In the hotels or on the bus, the music is simpler, and life is simpler, too, at least when they’re playing. It’s when they start talking, especially in the case of one disgruntled member of Crazy Horse, that it’s easy to forget these guys are anything but a bunch of middle-aged cranks.
Between the bad lighting, shaky (or should we say, “Shakey”?) visuals and scenes of poor, beleaguered interviewers unable to keep up with Young’s witty retorts, there is still something in Muddy Track that charms.
Muddy Track offers an interesting look at rock musicians with a complicated history on a difficult tour, and will be a must-see for fans of Neil Young, but offers little for the casual viewer. In terms of filmmaking, Muddy Track indulged in too much cause-and-effect, where a scene early on is included for no reason other than to explain something that happens later. Young is funny but, it must be said, not nearly as funny as he thinks he is, and for someone who complains so vociferously about modern (for 1987) music styles, he falls into music video mode in Muddy Track surprisingly frequently. But between the bad lighting, shaky (or should we say, “Shakey”?) visuals and scenes of poor, beleaguered interviewers unable to keep up with Young’s witty retorts, there is still something in Muddy Track that charms.