Last year Bob Dylan showed how awful a music-star vanity movie could be with “Masked and Anonymous.” Now Neil Young challenges Dylan’s reverse achievement with “Greendale,” a glorified home movie designed, one supposes, to showcase both his song-writing-and-singing talents and his abilities as a cinematic artiste. It fails on both counts.
Young claims auteur status by not only writing the script–which consists largely of his songs (composed along with Crazy Horse)–but also shooting the picture himself, in gritty, hand-held style, and directing it under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey (an appropriate surname, given the jittery result), as well as appearing in a concert-style sequence at the close. He thereby has ample opportunity to demonstrate his manifold incompetence.
But Young doesn’t merely want to make a movie, he wants to issue a Statement, one dealing with such Important Issues as the disintegration of the American family, the inexplicable escalation of violence in contemporary society, the abuse of governmental power, the baleful influence of the news media, and–most importantly–the destruction of the environment. He attempts all this by focusing on the Green family of the titular Northern California town (get the significance of the name, or is it too subtle for you?), whose patriarch, pony-tailed, straight-talking Grandpa Arius (Ben Keith), spends his time wailing (or actually lip-syncing to Young’s caterwauling) about livin’ life with a little bit of love, waiting for Grandma (Elizabeth Keith, looking like a young woman adorned with extremely bad old-age makeup, a fright wig and a shawl) to make lunch, and gettin’ treated nice by his grand-daughter Sun (Sarah White). One of his sons, Earl (James Mazzeo) does primitive paintings which are regularly rejected by the gallery to which he repeatedly takes them; the other, Jed (Eric Johnson) kills a cop named Carmichael (Paul Supplee) who stops him while he’s transporting drugs and winds up in the pokey. When the TV news vans descend on the family homestead, Grandpa collapses under the strain, and Sun leaves the farm to become an activist engaged in theatrical protests against corruption and greed. (This seems the case despite the fact that in the TV news scrawl accompanying word of Grandpa’s demise, she’s already described as a famous activist–a continuity error?) The FBI targets her for arrest (and plants evidence against her), but eventually she links up with a like-minded fellow called Earth Brown (Erik Markegard), with whom she apparently goes off to still-pristine Alaska (the name is motif recurring throughout the film). Everything ends in Young’s anthem, “Be The Rain,” intended as encouragement to viewers to go out and Make a Difference. There are further bits of business scattered throughout the picture, too–like repeated scenes of a dancing devil (also played by Johnson) who goes about inspiring, and rejoicing over, the minor tragedies of the plot, a sideline on Carmichael’s infidelity, and something involving a sea captain and his two dullard mates. Wayne Newton also shows up briefly as a character named Bernard Shakey, though it’s difficult to discern why. The clarity of it all is hardly improved by repeated shots of a childishly hand-drawn map of the town, which pointlessly identify the locations where various sequences are happening; as a linking device its only value is to provide a backdrop for the song titles.
It would be unfair to blame the cast overmuch for their uniformly terrible performances–after all, they’re merely mouthing Young’s words and trying to make some dramatic sense of a storyline which doesn’t have any. The fault really lies with Young: his photography is (intentionally, one assumes) as primitive as Earl’s paintings, his direction doesn’t go beyond the most rudimentary stage, and while his songs have a typically driving rhythm, the lyrics–which might be tolerable in the context of a stage performance or a CD–come across as crushingly obvious and heavy-handed, even if one agrees with the basic sentiments they’re intended to convey.
Young can be credited with one major accomplishment in “Greendale,” though: he’s created a foolproof defense against both CD and VHS/DVD piracy. All you have to do, it appears, is combine an album of music nobody would want to listen to more than once and a movie so terrible no one would ever want to sit through it a second time. Jack Valenti would be proud. As for viewers, they might be driven to follow the advice of “Be The Rain” and try to wash away all memory of this egomaniacal misfire from their consciousness.