Jimmy McDonough gets it right. Human Highway might be unfathomable, as he writes in the book Shakey, but it’s also “pure Neil Young.”
Musically speaking, we love it when the chaos of this singular singer-songwriter’s imagination coheres into something inexplicably moving—think of the bizarre imagery that gives “Powderfinger” its unlikely force, or the silver spaceships of “After the Goldrush”—but we’re less forgiving when he applies the strategy to the seventh art. Coming to the Cinematheque this weekend (July 31 to August 2), a retrospective of Young’s cinematic work asks us to reconsider.
“This movie was made up on the spot by punks, potheads, and former alcoholics,” is how Young described Human Highway, an improvised home movie self-financed over four years to the tune of three million bucks, and then released in 1983 to the same howls of derision that seemed to greet everything the musician did in the ‘80s.
Viewed now in its director’s cut, Human Highway is far more entertaining than its critics allowed. Set in a conspicuously artificial, irradiated desert town on the day the world ends, it gathers together some of Young’s favourite Topanga Canyon freaks and fringies, with Dean Stockwell—he also takes a co-directing credit alongside Young's nom-de-film, Bernard Shakey—hamming it up in the company of Sally Kirkland and Russ Tamblyn.
Then there’s Dennis Hopper, still very much an alcoholic (nothing “former” about it) when Human Highway went into production. Visibly out of control, he reportedly terrorized the members of Devo, whose incongruous presence in the film only adds to its demented vibe, especially when the band joins Young for a berserk version of "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" (with Booji Boy on vocals.)
As for Young himself, his uninhibited performance as uber-nerdy car mechanic Lionel is a true marvel. What millionaire rock star has ever elected to make himself look this goofy? “Jerry Lewis movies, Japanese horror movies, The Wizard of Oz—it’s all in there,” was Young’s appraisal of this brazen and unapologetic mess; a vanity project perversely free of anything remotely vain.
Bernard Shakey’s first ever celluloid credit appeared nine years earlier with the infamous Journey Through the Past (1974). Young made the film as Harvest was turning him into the world’s shorthand for sensitive rustic hippie. Along with the album of the same name, it helped transform Shakey’s reputation as something quite different, raising its auteur’s gambit of not giving a shit to dizzying heights. Journey Through the Past obliterated everybody’s expectations, but if the subsequent panning of the album was understandable, the film deserved better.
Like Human Highway, its appeal, admittedly, is massively increased after four decades as a (for the most part) murky bootleg. A weird melange of disconnected set-pieces—watch Young hanger-on “Scary” Gary Davis having a conversation with his truck before being chased across the beach by Knights Templar (or something!)—it also contains priceless footage of the early seventies rock star trip going horribly sour.
Crosby, Stills, and Nash all show up to embarrass themselves—Crosby in particular, with a toe-curlingly stupid monologue about “gray-faced” men and naked hippie girls. Backstage at the Fillmore East, Bill Graham fares better as he rants about kids getting gouged by the industry while their heroes sing about revolution. As ever, Young is impish, the one guy who seems to know what’s going on, at least when he isn’t preoccupied with laying down rehearsals of “Words (Between the Lines of Age)” among other Harvest-era numbers in a barn with the Stray Gators.
Confounding as it is, Journey Through the Past in some ways helped set the tone for the rest of Young’s career. If we see Shakey now as a man with a steadfast loyalty to his own muse, and a sincere indifference to your opinion, this movie clued us in 40 years ago. Its value as cinema, meanwhile, is best summed up by long-time collaborator Larry “LA” Johnson, who praised Young’s primitivism. “He will try stuff people more knowledgeable than him would never think of trying,” he said. “He’s the naïve explorer.”
Naturally, results will vary. If Greendale (2003) and A Day at the Museum (2012) push Young’s haphazard aesthetic to its breaking point—for the latter, he renders the otherwise fine Crazy Horse album Americana into something painfully boring—the naive explorations of Muddy Track (1987) might provide this retrospective with its towering moment of dreadful inspiration.
Young was in Europe with Crazy Horse when his entire world went into free fall, and his diary of that disastrous 1987 tour, captured with a video camera named Otto, is unmissable. “What I’m looking for is anything bad,” he tells a small crew at the beginning. “If people get uptight while you’re filming, don’t stop… Anything that happens that’s going wrong, I want it.”
Cue endless sheets of freezing European rain, riots, numerous cancelled shows, bad shows, worse shows, band fights, more band fights, painfully bad interviews, and the pitiful sight (and sound) of Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina trying to wrestle with synth-drums. Muddy Track is a terminal document from what should have been the end of Neil Young’s career. “It was a tour with a bunch of people that hated each other, hated what they were doing, and it showed,” said producer David Briggs.
Yet its dogged focus on failure and collapse, aggravated by ear-splitting blasts of feedback and lousy acoustics, must have had a cleansing effect. After swearing to ditch them once and for all, Young rounded up the Horse and bounced back with 1990’s Ragged Glory. The nineties would prove to be a considerably better decade for everyone. Muddy Track is a vital dispatch from the outer rings of fucked up.
Other curios in the series include the equally fascinating Solo Trans, a one-hour video directed in 1984 by none other than Hal Ashby. Young was battling commercial failure and artistic torpor. This concert performance captures the confusion, opening with acoustic classics like “Helpless” before moving into the iffy electronica of Trans. It ends with the Shocking Pinks invading the stage for an antic run through “Payola Blues” that dumps all over the wretched album version on 1983’s Everybody’s Rockin’.
Significantly, the gonzo humour is also still intact. In fact, Young is straight-up nuts in Solo Trans. “I got way into that guy,” he said, of the greaser Shocking Pinks persona he adopted at the time. “I was that guy for months. He was out there. It was a movie to me. Nobody saw it but me, but who gives a shit?”
“Nobody saw it but me, but who gives a shit?” What a great title for this must-see weekend of films.
Also Included: Rust Never Sleeps (1979), Neil Young Truck Show (2009, directed by Jonathan Demme), and Dead Man (1995, directed by Jim Jarmusch).
The Bernard Shakey Film Retrospective: Neil Young on Screen runs at the Cinematheque, from Friday to Sunday (July 31-Sunday 2)