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.
Presenting a 1978 concert performance at the Cow Palace, Rust Never Sleeps (1979) is a bizarre, rather unconventional concert film that could only be presented by the eccentric mind of Neil Young. Taking note from German expressionism, Neil Young as Bernard Shakey uses assertive lighting, colour light filtration, and a genuinely ‘creepy’ mise-en-scene to create a looming atmosphere of grunge. The stage, outdoors and neon-lit, presents dive bar dirtiness, with graffiti on broken props and a gray/brown colour scheme. A giant microphone, amplifier, and harmonica are just some of the strange props, brought into the picture by dementor-looking monks in robes called Road Eyes. These elements, when put together, create a certain unique experience, and shares with the viewer the atmosphere of Neil Young’s famous late 70s tours. At the same time, much of the visual material is rather off-putting and arbitrarily captured by cameras that feel as unhinged as the mentally distressing images it captures.
A bizarre, rather unconventional concert film that could only be presented by the eccentric mind of Neil Young.
The film opens with an electrified version of The Star Spangled Banner a la Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. The Road Eyes, as named by Neil Young at the close of the concert, appear on stage in monks robes. They wander around, bright yellow eyes glaring, and set up the stage. Carrying a giant microphone on stage, they appear ritualistic, perhaps satanic. There is a religious theme to this, whether intentional or not, and it can be quite disturbing. It is likely that Neil Young’s intentions are purely theatrical, but the appearance of these evil wanderers beg a different interpretation.
Unlike most concert films, Rust Never Sleeps utilizes film techniques such as zooms, tilts, and unusual angles. It is more formally controlled and inventive than the average concert film which typically utilizes stationary cameras and preset focal lengths to create a visceral but formulaic recording of the event. In this case, Neil Young wishes to accentuate certain theatrical aspects, such as the movement and actions of the Road Eyes on and off stage. While giving the camera autonomy to capture the event freely, however, he gives it the capacity to distract from the music, assert its own self-importance, and eventually become a caricature of itself. The unusual camera movements appear arbitrary, contrived, and simply done for the sake of novelty. It does not have the grace or care as one of Scorsese’s concert documentaries, for example, which tend to capture the band first and the performance second.
Taking note from German expressionism, Neil Young as Bernard Shakey uses assertive lighting, colour light filtration, and a genuinely ‘creepy’ mise-en-scene to create a looming atmosphere of grunge.
Several theatrical events occur during the concert. Besides the camera capturing the Road Eyes backstage dancing or standing eerily in the crowd, it captures them altering the set and trading musical instruments. At one point, a Road Eye creepily drops off an acoustic guitar for Neil Young to pick up for his next set. At another, Neil Young lays in a sleeping bag and gets hauled off stage. All the while, the emcee discusses a batch of bad brown acid and a hamburger stand. It’s all quite bizarre and its purpose, of course, is never explained. There are no intertitles or interviews to explain the happenings; perhaps one need extra textual information in order to understand Neil’s idiosyncratic performance. In a DVD supplement, the Road Eyes are described as staff from Rhode Island with the motto “purpose and fervor”. So I suppose they are Neil Young’s minions and he is their all-powerful boss.
The music is always a plus, with a number of iconic performances such as the rock anthems Hey Hey, My My and My My, Hey Hey. Epic ballads Cortez the Killer and Like a Hurricane are given special treatment, both by Neil Young the performer and Neil Young the director. Crazy Horse joins Neil on stage for a number of acts, all of which deliver the gusto. Most notably, a fine grain, high saturation image conveys the melancholy tune Needle and the Damage Done. The focal blur due to high zoom captures Neil in a haunting portrait, unflinchingly restrained in capturing in profile and headshot his emotional outpour.
Though strange and often frustrating to watch, the documentary remains a triumph, if just for the music. The film techniques and strange performance may inspire or intrigue. Though rather peculiar, it is not complete nonsense. Any fan of Neil Young will aim to understand his provocative gestures. Regardless, one will likely enjoy the well recorded music and stellar performance.
Though strange and often frustrating to watch, the documentary remains a triumph, if just for the music.